Friday, May 17, 2019

Missed Connections--a throwback to past writing

This story recently appeared in Spitfire Literary:

Missed Connections
by Jane Hertenstein

You were ahead of me in line at the Corner Bakery on State and Wabash, getting a salad, and you had on black pants and a very flattering white sweater. I was a few spots back, wearing a black coat, and I’m pretty sure we made eye contact numerous times. I wanted to say hello, but you were with a group of friends and I thought it might be awkward.

Yesterday I was riding my bike down Glenview and someone yelled my name, hey Sonja! Who was it?

Hey there, saw you at the pop machine just 30 minutes ago. You had on a tie-dyed T-shirt and I was sitting at the table next to the window checking you out. You looked and smiled. Wanna chat?

Tim, I said I needed a little time, but it’s been three weeks. Please call.

To the guy I made out with last night at the Fireside Bar—I lost your number. You wrote it on a tiny piece of paper I must’ve misplaced. Anyway, if you see this, I’ll be there again tonight.

We were on the train this morning, same car. You got on at Fullerton and I scooched over, and you sat down. I said nice shoes. You said thanks and read your Red Eye. Are you gay? Here’s hoping—reply, okay?

Ashley’s boss entered the room and she made Missed Connections disappear and reverted to her call center screen.

click the link to finish reading
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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Ostrog Monastery

I'm bringing back a flash I wrote inspired by traveling. A flash is like a postcard, written to remember our trip and let others know: Wish you were here!
“Now we climb.”
My husband and I were on a day excursion to Ostrog Monastery. Our tour guide had just announced that the last part of the journey was about to commence.
The bus pulled into a broad parking lot. It was with great relief we disembarked into a thick cloud of diesel exhaust and pilgrim cigarette smoke. “Now we climb,” our tour guide informed us.
I tilted my head. The monastery and cave church blended into the white bluffs above us. Centuries ago, hermit monks had excavated a chapel and living space much like how pigeons or doves build nests in insurmountable crevices impossibly high. Steps cut into the mountainside, zigzagged across the rock face. I hadn’t brought the right shoes.
“On the knees,” our guide continued in broken English.
click to finish reading

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Bright Invisible--my latest work is available as a chabook

Bright Invisible: Word Sketches from Great Spruce Head Island

a PDF chapbook, This chapbook will appeal to readers of the New York School—particularly fans of James Schuyler and John Ashbery. Great Spruce Head Island has been a source of inspiration for generations of artists and writers. I was invited to GSHI to spend a week walking where Frank O’Hara, Ashbery, and Schuyler walked. Through essays, journal entries, persona letters where I channel James Schuyler, I attempt to experience the island through their eyes. CLICK on image to the right of the page to request *FREE PDF

Friday, May 10, 2019

Bitter Fruit

For the next couple of weeks I'd like to post some old stories from my OTHER WRITING archive.

Here's a throw-back to The Write Room and a piece called Bitter Fruit.

Last summer I worked at a fruit stall at a Chicago green market located at State and Division. I started at the bottom of the ladder, assistant to the assistant peach purveyor; Katie knew her fruit. She always let me know when I was doing something wrong. In terms better suited for the job than myself, I was green.

The Russian ladies shopped for Old Golds, a variety of apples good for cooking. “It reminds them of home,” Paul often repeated. My boss Paul never liked how I stacked, “put up,” the apples. He had a system riddled with contradictions. First he warned me not to over handle the fruit, yet I was required to touch every piece. Once he instructed me to find the small ones and put two in the bottom of a quart size basket, then four more on top of them (that way they won’t roll off, he explained) and then a large one at the summit. Okay. But the next time it was one at the bottom, medium-sized, and then four, followed by one more (Why so big? The customers will think you’re trying to trick them.) I couldn’t win for losing. I don’t even like fruit.

I began to attach narratives to our customers. Just as the Russians were drawn to the apples because they reminded them of home, the gays were like bees swarming the peaches. I let my imagination go. The little old ladies were tempted by the blackberries as if that were their only vice. They carried them home like eggs in their handbags swaddled in plastic bags wrapped twice around. Kids were ga-ga over the blueberries, snitching stray ones off the table and popping them into their mouths. I liked to think their mamas read them Blueberries for Sal.

click to read the rest!

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Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Success of Failure

Jean Vanier died May 7, 2019. The way he lived his life and the words he wrote have had a profound affect upon me—and my life choices.

On Tuesday as accolades piled up at Facebook and social media, I was struck with how much this gentle man impacted others. You see, he dwelled with the least of these: people with intellectual disabilities. For someone destined for greatness and titles, he gave it up to live modestly, sincerely, and without pretense. To give dignity to others.

Jean Vanier came from privilege as a son of the British monarchy’s representative in Canada. After stints in the British and Canadian navies, he considered becoming a Catholic priest. He attended seminary getting a PhD in Philosophy with a dissertation on Aristotle in regards to happiness. In the early 1960s, when he traveled to France to see his spiritual mentor, a member of the Dominican order then serving as a chaplain at a home for people with intellectual disabilities. He found what he described as a “chaotic atmosphere of violence and uproar.” Some patients were shackled. Those who were not did little but walk in circles. Especially disturbing to Mr. Vanier was their screams. The scene was typical of mental institutions around the world at the time.

Thus his life took an unexpected turn—he asked if he could remove 2 of the asylum’s residents and live with them in a small house. It was a peer-to-peer relationship, he saw these brothers as having a lot to offer. He grew as a human being.

That house was the first of 154 communities across 38 countries that today form the network known as L’Arche. In 2015 Jean Vanier was awarded the Templeton Prize honoring “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Bestowed by the U.S.-based John Templeton Foundation, the prize was worth approximately $1.7 million.

I was struck by reading the various tributes how Vanier lived his life in contrast to society. “We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” He valued failure—how opposite is that?

The same day as his death I read about the US College Scandal:
Where parents have done their damnedest to get their kids into prestigious colleges—even breaking the law. It’s all about advance, advance, don’t retreat. Win, win, win. Kids today have to be the best, the smartest, carve out a niche for their college essays by being unique. Well, not everyone can be unique, literally we’d all be unique, and therefore, no one would be unique.

“The fear of failure, of feeling helpless and unable to cope, had been built up in me ever since my childhood. I had to be a success. I had to prove my worth. I had to be right. This need to succeed and to be accepted, even admired by my parents and by those whom I considered my “superiors,” was a strong motivating force in me and is a motivation at the heart of many human endeavours.”
― Jean Vanier, Becoming Human
“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”
- Community And Growth, Jean Vanier

The upside world of Jean Vanier is that in succeeding we lose, that in failing we progress, can go forward. It is the same paradox found in I Corinthians 1:26-28 Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly and despised things of the world, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are,…

I’m wondering if in fact we should teach our children the privilege of losing, the importance of failure. The BBC article I linked to above asks the question: How important is an elite college degree? We certainly know it isn’t worth the price. Only the wealthiest can afford a 4-year degree from Harvard, Stanford, Yale.

I remember when my daughter graduated from college and was writing short stories (she still is). She had an acceptance in the inaugural issue of Goreyesque and was offered a public reading at Loyola University downtown Chicago. We were so awfully proud. Afterwards there was a reception. A man came up to us. I expected him to say he enjoyed Grace’s reading or to comment on her story, instead he asked how she got into The New School. He had a daughter/son he’d like to go there. Well, I wanted to say, first you have to get out of the box—but why bother since he didn’t even know he was in a box. He had no idea what was important. Some things money cannot buy.

Jean Vanier knew this and lived his life accordingly.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Fungus Among Us

For the next couple of weeks I'd like to post some old stories from my OTHER WRITING archive.

Here's a throw-back to Liars' League NYC

The fact that she was a cat lady was the least of her issues
The spokes of her wheelchair were clogged with fur. The big wheels looked like they were sheathed in brown and grey shag carpeting.

Georgina was a cat lady.--click for the rest

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Monday, April 29, 2019

New Work out, Colere Journal

New work out today at Colere, a literary journal, you can purchase a copy through Coe College, write to:

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Autobiographical Songs, Songs of our Father

Kishi Bashi and the musician Passenger have a lot in common: 1) both use stage names and 2) both have recently released a song about their father.

One of the most popular posts at this blog had to do with autobiographical songs. I know, why do I check my stats? Except for self-doubt, I might not have revisited this subject.

Kishi Bashi (Kaoru Ishibashi) is an energetic Japanese/American violinist. I’m sure he is classically trained but quickly began to experiment with rock violin and beatboxing, etc. He has accompanied artists such as Regina Spektor. He explores soundscapes, building up layers and looping. I first found him when I downloaded “Bright Whites”. I loved the flavor of the exotic combined with up-tempo lyrics. It went into my RUNNING playlist. His latest music is an ode or tribute to his father, an album called Omoiyari and the song, “Summer of '42” abut his father’s experiences during World War II inside an internment camp in the US.

From NPR:
“this is a very important song for me in that it's the finale piece to the symphonic piece I premiered last year. It's a love story set in World War II, about falling in love in an incarceration camp and ultimately losing that love. The significance is that the idea of love, loss, and desire are consistent themes throughout history and help us to empathize with a people in a disconnected past.”

It is no coincidence that many artists who are sons and daughter of immigrants or immigrants themselves have decided to explore the topic of welcoming the outsider and viewing the journey of their parent’s through today’s lens. Meaning the travel bans, talk of walls, heated rhetoric of caravans that dehumanizes.

Passenger (Mike Rosenberg) a solo artist with a “band” name had a big hit with “Let Her Go” in 2014. He is the son of an English mother and a Jewish father who hailed from New Jersey. I know, New Jersey. America must seem like such a complex place. We are this land of democracy, which has Constitutional gun rights. We love and hate in extremes. We went from a president named Obama to someone named Trump. Passenger has recently released a song called “To Be Free” about his father.

Rosenberg’s grandparents were living in France when the war started and fled to Switzerland and stayed in a refugee camp. Later they moved to the US.

[Verse 1]
Vineland, New Jersey, farm land stretching
Far as the eye can see
Not much down there, but sun-scorched pastures in
The war is over, they came searching
For a place to be
They left the Rhineland, they lost their homeland, and
All their family

Like feathers on the ocean breeze
They went spinning and tumbling 'cross the sea
Never know where they'd come down
Or who they'd be
Like heather on the hillside
They were bruised and they were battered by the breeze
Searching for a place
To be free

Verse 2]
Sun burn summers and frost by winter
Kids were plainly dressed
Left the farmhouse when he was old enough, and
Headed out west
From California to Southern Africa
And all the way to France
And on to England to meet my mother in

[Verse 3]
Now here I am, thirty-three years down
I've seen the Rhineland, I've been to Vineland, I'm
A feather on the breeze

Both of these artists and songs are autobiographical and show how their own father’s journey have impacted their art—and how the circle of generations closes in on us, spiraling ever faster with the passing of years.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Bikes of Wrath, a review

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The Bikes of Wrath
Demand Films
A review

This film combined two of my passions: cycling and literature. It is the story of 5 young men from Australia—from the hinterlands—such as one grew up on an egg farm—who fell in love with The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and decided to come to America to ride bikes from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Bakersfield, CA following the tire treads of the Joad’s old jalopy. On its own the travel documentary is not that interesting as they mostly adhered to Route 66 or the ghost of it, mostly riding beside heavy traffic on divided highways. The beauty of the film lies in the happenstance, the random encounters with folks living Joadlike in the interior of Middle America.

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If an American had attempted this film they would have failed. It took an outsider to bridge the huge chasm that now separates most of America, between Republican and Democrat. Ironically, Trump is rarely brought up. The film was made in the summer of 2016 when the campaign was going on. It was a forgone conclusion that Hillary would be elected—I’m not sure the guys would have thought that by the end of their trip. They met enough people who echoed the same sentiment: they have been forgotten—to guess that perhaps Trump might have a chance.
But the film is not about politics, at least not contemporary politics, but about socialism and the fight for the “little” man in Steinbeck-speak. It has been years since I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath and I was surprised how much the snip-its read aloud in the film resonated with today. The huge disconnect between Washington DC and the problems of Middle America, the poor farmer struggling with draught and foreclosure, the heavy burden the rich has loaded onto others. The crazy people with guns loaded scared of the Deep State.

Yes, there is that. But also, empathy for the outsider, the immigrant. Okkies remembering how hard they had it, how they were despised and treated as less than human because they were down on their luck. The boys explored all of this through the lens of their cameras and face-to-face conversations with hosts, store clerks, busking outside a gas station. (Before they sold their trailers and guitars. Sheesh, these guys were green when it came to bike touring.) Using bicycles helped them to put themselves into the shoes and circumstances of the Joads. Their mission was to do the trip in thirty days and using basically the same amount of cash the Joads started with.

At first they experienced big-hearted America, an outpouring of generosity, the ability to embrace the stranger no matter what your beliefs or where you come from. But along the way they encounter a homeless, mentally ill guy trying to “walk to his death,” they run across racists and gun-toting delusionals. They are all harmless and willing to share their stories. It is these realities as well as the fact that they have to pick up the pace if they want to make it to Bakersfield that forces them to suffer—not a lot, but to put more of a Joad perspective on their adventure. They push themselves to ride harder, more miles, eat less, and ultimately to sell off their stuff—except for cameras.

This documentary is part travelogue and part the human experience, the ability to survive despite the odds. They make it to Bakersfield and are interviewed on the radio—and by coincidence a woman hears them and invites them to her house to share with them a letter written by an aunt who experienced the Dust Bowl and journey West as an 11-year old. As a viewer you feel included on an incredible trek back in time to see once again the forces that made this country and what at the same time drive it apart. Hatred and suspicion for the outsider, the ability to welcome the stranger and fire shots over their head. We are a complex story.

The bike parts of The Bikes of Wrath are there also. 1) the over-packing 2) leaving late and arriving in the dark 3) an under-appreciation for how far things are 4) headwinds 5) flats, blow outs, falling ill—and simply falling. I can’t tell you how many times they filmed the guys climbing onto their bikes and then tipping over. Continuing the litany: 6) the hunger 7) exhaustion 8) unpredictable weather. One of the funniest moments from a theater crowd that could possibly relate, was when the boys started out staring into the face of an on-coming thunderstorm and thought they might beat it out. Two miles later they turn around and sail back to the overhang of an old barn. There were many low-mileage days.

You really feel a sense of exultation when they “arrive,” at a sign outside of Bakersfield announcing they are within the city limits. The place looks like crap, but they did it and they have a story to tell.
Thier next project: Floatin' with Huck.

Friday, April 19, 2019

2001 in Paris at the Notre Dame

Thumbing through our 2001 album of photos from our first trip to Europe I linger over pages of photos taken from the ramparts of Notre Dame.

The trip was a miracle, a fluke for people who only recently opened a bank account and got a debit card. We were poor but rich in friends and connections overseas. So we decided to cash out and see if a trip abroad was possible.  The result was The European Schedule: where we visited friends in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and along the way explored Florence, Venice, Prague, and Paris. We had no idea how big the world was or how old monuments were—everywhere we looked was something older than the oldest building in Chicago. We crossed borders and used currency since replaced by the EU. It was on this trip we first saw Notre Dame.

Let me be honest. Most of the history was a blur. There was so much of it. Not to say I didn’t understand the significance of the cathedral. The Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame had just come out. Just getting to Paris and navigating the Metro and buying a pastry would have been enough, but on top of that was everything else. I was overwhelmed. So standing on the ramparts next to gargoyles exhibiting human characteristics, I tried to take it all in. It was impossible.

So 19 years on all I have is a photo album to remind me of our family trip. Shot after shot of gargoyles as if we couldn’t get enough of them. One day I hope to return and see them still there, guarding the roof of Notre Dame.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Notre Dame, April 15, 2019

I was one of those shattered yesterday watching live streaming at the BBC News of Notre Dame burning. You don’t have to have visited to know how meaningful it has been to millions of people. Not to mention a landmark of Paris, the City of Light.

But I have been there, stood on its ramparts, and looked out over the city. I have peered upward toward the rose window and watched late afternoon sunlight streak through and cast rainbow colors on the floor of the cathedral. Yet, even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be less horrified watching the flames climb higher and higher in a darkening sky.

It felt awful, catastrophic, hopeless; I couldn’t turn away.

In a few remarks at close to midnight Paris time Marcon looks absolutely shaken. Those around him appear equally devastated. The past few years Paris has experienced a lot of loss and tragedy. The grief was palpable. Marcon finishes and receives a hug.
Flames and smoke are seen billowing from Notre-Dame's roof
BBC News, smoke and flames are seen billowing

Oaken roof supports were said to date back to the 1100s.
Circa 1860

An 1853 photo by Charles Nègre of Henri Le Secq next to ‘Le Stryge’ gargoyle

To all of Paris, thoughts and prayers, an outpouring of condolences. Our Lady will arise from the ashes.

Monday, April 15, 2019

How did I get here?

Where is this place--
I always start with a question
endless wondering . . .
How did I get to this place?

Sore Feet, aching teeth
I drink a cup of coffee
and it goes right though me
But I sure do love caffeine

When i go to bootcamp
the instructor lowers the bar
I lift half the weight
and still leave exhausted
I forget my purse at the grocery
and drive back--
How did I get to this place?

Of vulnerability and incontinence when
yesterday I was twenty-three
running from the cops, staying
out all night
when now I fall asleep at nine PM

I don't want to go back
turn the time dial to my youth
I like who I am now--
       except sometimes I don't recognize myself

Who is that grey haired women in the mirror?
Where did the blonde go?
How did I get here?

The lines in my brow answer: Go to bed.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Foot Doctor

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We used to have a resident foot doctor called Mr. Fung--an unfortunate name.

I'm not sure why it took three years--my feet have been killing me--to make an appointment to see the foot doctor. My quality of foot life has gone way downhill. I went from running 5 miles to 3 to 1 to none. I haven't run for months now because of my feet.

Today I walked over to the Foot Clinic. After checking in I sat and waited. There were some sorry characters there. People who had had toes amputated, who sat in wheelchairs, who limped in on crutches. I wanted to run out of there--except I couldn't.

Finally my name was called. I was shown to an office where I kicked off my shoes and socks and prayed. Not to say there hasn't been moments when I wanted to lop off the undesirable bumps now crowding the bottom of my feet--I just didn't want it to happen now. Or without numbing.

The doctor came in and said her name. I didn't catch it because she was busy studying my feet. And within seconds--I'm not kidding--she was scraping my feet with a sharp object.

I can't say it felt good, but it didn't matter because after a minute she was done.


I checked. She'd removed calluses the size and color of cornflakes, bony spurs, even the big one the size of a marble= gone. I walked, skipped out of the office a liberated woman, ready to run.

If you have been putting off getting the knobs and bumps on your feet checked out--don't delay! Go to the Foot Clinic at 4646 N. Marine Drive and ask for Nicole Fields. She was so fast it left time leftover for a coffee at Everybody's.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Writing Prompts to Get you Flashing!

November 21, 2017
Format: Kindle Edition
While Jane Hertenstein’s book Flash Memoir is ostensibly geared toward writers, this book is a must-have for anyone who is creating art of any kind. Filled with amazing historical factoids (check out Hemingway’s lost valise or Wordsworth’s almost-permanent houseguest, Samuel Coleridge) as well as the writer’s personal examples of following her own advice, the main thrust of the book is to get the reader’s creativity flowing, and boy howdy, the author succeeds at that.

I would highly and enthusiastically recommend Flash Memoirs for writers, artists, photographers, fabric-art creators, poets, gem artisans, musicians, and everyone else who is using their creativity to explore and understand the world. Creating is tough. It’s hard. But Ms. Hertenstein hands anyone who reads her book a skeleton key to the treasure chests of imagination that all of us possess.
November 15, 2017
Format: Kindle Edition
In this clever craft book, Hertenstein outlines a plan for busy writers to build a memoir in little flashes- those seemingly inconsequential moments that, when strung together, create a powerful memoir. Hertenstein provides a series of accessible yet thought-provoking prompts that can be completed in "the time it takes you to brush your teeth." Great for writers and teachers of writing as well.

December 5, 2017
Format: Kindle Edition
As writers, sometimes we have "writer's block." When this happens we look for writing inspiration to come in different ways.
Hertenstein's book does a great job in giving writing prompts that really make you "think" and feel inspired in a "new way" focusing on memories from your past. I found this interesting, because I have not thought to write a memoir, but her book made me "think" and "remember" stories I could write and share with others. One clever idea was to write about what we see in the "Frozen Food Isle." I highly recommend this book - every day you'll have a new story to write! Excellent!

Monday, April 8, 2019

365 Affirmations for the Writer--get inspired!

January 7, 2015
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This book is a miracle of inspiration for writers. I highly recommend it to anyone who even dabbles with the thought of getting stories down on paper. It may be the only encouragement you need to begin.
One person found this helpful
Comment Report abuse
March 3, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
This is a lovely and helpful book. Sometimes just the right quote is all it takes to remind me that we writers are in this together--that it's hard for all of us, but that a writing life is a considered life and a terrific life. I came across a number of quotes in this book that I had never read before, almost all of them provocative and useful. I recommend this book to other writers to dip in and out of, for that little bit of inspiration and affirmation whenever you need it.
March 19, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
Totally feeling inspired to write after flipping through just a few pages. Can't wait to make reading this part of my regular writing routine.
January 2, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
If you are a writer in need of a little inspiration, this book is for you. The quotes are great, but I especially liked the bonus material which provided concrete exercises to spark my creativity.