Monday, July 29, 2013

A Whole New Recipe

I discovered a letter you wrote to me dated 8/6/83. It was slipped into the pages of an old cookbook. What was I doing thirty years ago—making gravy?

You had just gotten married and were expecting a baby. I was still single. “Where does the time go?” you asked in the opening line. Your dad recently retired. That’s when your dad was still living as was mine. Before the fragile brittleness of mortality entered in.

You say you’d love to come to Chicago, but your husband has a new job and can’t get away. In Lima, Ohio. “Well,” you write, “you have to start somewhere.”

We’d become friends while freshmen in high school. Different schools. I still cannot remember the exact circumstances, but it involved Young Life and meetings with guitars and exuberant singing. “It Only Takes a Spark to Get a Fire Going.” We ended up sitting next to each other and at one point in the song you turn to the person next to you and “pass it on.” The summer before tenth grade we volunteered to work at a Young Life camp in the hills outside of Pittsburg, PA for inner-city youth.

In your letter you mention people we met at camp and continued to hang with through college. Different colleges. You attended Ohio State and I went to OU (Ohio University). “Terri Sparling should deliver her twins any day now!” “Yesterday was Mark Bruce’s birthday,” you remind me. All people I only have a tenuous grasp of who they are today.

“How are things for you?” you ask. “How’s your summer so far?”

If I remember correctly I was trying to figure out what life was all about. After graduating from college and failing miserably to find a job, I’d come to Chicago to join a commune. I know—not exactly what I was originally thinking either. But as things turned out, the lifestyle appealed to me. Filled a few holes left by a dysfunctional family. Which, by the way, in your letter, you questioned my decision to skip a visit home. “I understand your parents kind of nag on you, but Jane I’m sure they love you.” In retrospect your encouragement now sounds sort of sweet and na├»ve.

“Pray for me.” You confess you are missing college, your family, all the people you were used to surrounding yourself with. “I just need a friend!”

I fold the letter and return it to its place in the cookbook. You were just here a few weeks ago visiting. The last time I saw you was ten years ago. And before that, maybe ten more years. Yet, even with the passing of time and living half a continent apart, we are still friends. We’re still passing it on.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Don't Stop Believin'

The high school quarterback is dead. Cory Montieth died last week of a drug overdose. During those heady halcyon days of high school (or TV high school) it’s hard to imagine death. The end is as far away as the beginning. Everything is fluid and in progress and seemingly forever.

Though, as with many a graduating senior, it is equally hard to imagine what’s next.

After the ceremony, the parties, and a summer that feels like intermission—before starting the next big thing—the recent graduate can put off the future, at least until the fall. Sure there are expectations: possibly college, to suddenly grow-up, to start acting responsible, or suck-up and get a job, but that is out there, not now.

Yet with the passing of time the high school football star fades, the incoming class of freshman forget his name, because what matters to them is now. Eventually the golden glory tarnishes. The next thing arrives and one has to start all over again.

Some can make the adjustment, some stay forever in high school.

I remember the high school jock a couple of grades above me. He was a tanned, blonde wonder-boy with the kind of open smile that leaves one thunderstruck. The prospects for his future were endless. He was popular in the way that people sincerely liked him, even the ones like me who weren’t popular. I’m sure (because I would never know) that there is a certain invincibility, a self-confidence that comes with being so handsome, successful, and popular. Just like with Cory Montieth, after a night of drinking, coming back to his hotel room and taking a hit of heroin, death seems like something only mortals have to worry about.

The football hero I’m remembering died at the end of the summer—perhaps it was 1975—killed in a car accident. We never got to see if he got fat, bald, trounced from life’s disappointments. He left us at his height. And for the rest of us, old, fat, bald, and broken, he is whole, sun-kissed blonde, flashing a dazzling smile through the driver’s side window, before pulling away into traffic.

Do you have a high school story to tell? Use the news as a prompt. What happened to all those beautiful people from back when?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My Brother's Book

I just found out Maurice Sendak was gay. Not that it matters. I was at the library and there was a new book on the shelf—Maurice Sendak’s last book, My Brother’s Book. I picked it up to read the jacket notes and discovered that the book pays homage to Sendak’s brother, Jack, whom he credited for his passion for writing and drawing. But not only that, it is a memorial to Sendak’s late partner Eugene Glynn.


I wiki’ed Sendak. I had read many articles about Sendak when he was alive and always followed his career, but yet I knew nothing of his personal life. Sendak had lost both his brother and partner before his own death at age 83 last year. And, yet , the saddest part of reading his bio at wiki, was that he’d recently came out (at age 80). From a NYT interview: “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.” Mr. Sendak added, “I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business.”

I held the book and felt doubly sad. One) that Maurice Sendak was dead and Two) that the time he lived in, anytime before now, Sendak could not have loved openly and married his partner of FIFTY YEARS. If only he had lived long enough for the U.S. Supreme to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), hopefully one day paving the way for marriage equality. If only a young Maurice Sendak was growing up today—he’d know that the way to make his parent’s happy would be to just be himself.

I think there is a children’s story here.

The Power of an Image

Dangerous people rarely look the way we expect . . .
is how Roxanne Gay (someone whom I read whenever I can) began her article at

"Time and again, the word “normal” comes up."

Her editorial isn't so much about the Rolling Stone cover story as about the Rolling Stone cover. It is about--who is America, me, you, us afraid of.

Seldom have iconic images such as the above caused so much controversy. May the discussion begin--and continue.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Flash Fiction World

Hi Folks I've spent this recent heat wave in an unairconditioned room sweating over this blog--adding and expanding PLACES TO SUBMIT.

Also check out Flash Fiction World, Volume 4, Edited by Vic Errington. This anthology contains over 70 short shorts, flashes from around the world.

"Milk Teeth" by an award-winning flash writer from New Zealand named Leanne Radojkovich caught my attention. It is about a young woman sent to clean up a house left vacant with its elderly tenant passed away.

I unzipped the purse, turning it upside down. Four tiny teeth fell into the palm of my hand.
BUY THE BOOK to read the rest.

I "met" the editor Vic Errington online (he lives and writes from the UK) when I contacted him about guest blogging for Flash Fiction World website dedicated to flash fiction. Many people working with flash think in terms of fiction, but since there are no true genres, they have been genuinely open to my submitting articles about flash memoir. Here is a link to my article. How To Write Flash Memoir=Flash Fiction world (UK)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Wall Drug, SD

On the way out we started seeing the signs halfway through Minnesota. Wall Drug is like the only thing along I-90 WEST outside of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. Neither are worth stopping for. In fact we were relieved when we finally passed it on the way out. Except about a mile away from it there was a billboard saying STOP! You just passed Wall Drugs. Geez, cut us a break.

On the way back, driving straight through at night, those billboards on a lonely road started to seem like friends, greeting us every few miles, letting me know there was someone out there. The sky and road were pitch dark except for the occasional Wall Drug advertisement.

So because we were hungry and perhaps curious, we pulled off. The town was hopping and surprisingly Wall Drug was closed. We turned into a DQ and had to stand in line behind folks in cowboy gear and Little League players to place our order. It took a while and combined with eating and lounging we stayed until closing. An employee was just locking up as we were exiting. I kidded with him—Don’t lock us in!

The employee, a kid, was earnest. Don’t worry. Then he proceeded to tell us it was Wall’s birthday. The town was 106 years old. He also told me there was a rodeo in town and that tomorrow there would be a big tent pitched on Main Street in front of the drugstore and that there would be dancing at night. I tried not to act like that was pathetically provincial. So I responded with Wow!

He went on to tell me that he wasn’t originally from Wall but eastern Montana (What’s the difference!?)

I hadn’t planned on really talking to him. I just wanted to treat him like the scenery or like those ubiquitous billboards, part of the local flavor. I was a tourist and he was a bison I might photograph beside the road.

Yet, he had engaged me and I was wondering how to get out of the conversation. The longer I stood there, the more my mind wandered. Maybe he’d followed the rodeo into town, was injured by a steer and ended up in Wall. Maybe he and his girlfriend had hitchhiked to South Dakota for the celebration and she’d left him for a better step dancer. Or perhaps he’d left Montana when his mother remarried and the guy was treating him like a jerk. Maybe his dad was the tall, silent type who took him fishing and hunting but wasn’t able to hold a conversation with him. Maybe all the silence was driving him crazy and he had to get away.

Or maybe he was standing there looking at me and wondering what was wrong with the frumpy, middle-aged woman before him; why did she smile in such a condescending manner? Maybe he hated all the tourists who come and go and never stop to consider real people and real lives. I know, I hate it too.

Anyway, we parted. But before walking away I said Happy Birthday. 

Old Faithful Again and Again

We just returned from Yellowstone National Park where for a total of 5 days we camped and visited and re-visited my old stomping grounds. Speaking of which, we were lucky enough to see an unexplained stampede of buffalo in some far hills while out driving. We did a lot of driving. Far too much driving. After awhile we didn’t even bother photographing all the bison, elk, and deer we encountered in and around the roadways. Once we saw a mama bear and her two cubs. Even some of the geo-thermal features began to look the same. “Didn’t we already see this hot pot yesterday?”

That’s why when we were at Old Faithful—often ending up there, as our daughter is working at the site—seeing the geyser go off a total of 5 times, we decided on our last pass through to skip watching it (people were lining the basin which they do when eruption is imminent). Yet, unbelievably, the employees never seem to get enough of Old Faithful. Each of the 5 times (almost 6) I observed employees come to the windows or if outside stop what they were doing to watch it go off. I asked a couple of them—Do you ever get tired of watching it? No, one answered before taking a picture of Old Faithful erupting with her cell phone, each time it is different. One older park employee who worked in the cafeteria said he loved watching it—then hustled back inside as there is a “geyser rush” afterwards. The people lining the basin, hundreds of them, after standing in anticipation for up to half an hour—as it sometimes can be “late” —hurry over to buy ice cream and soft drinks.

So, yes, I regret not seeing it go off six times. But my last viewing was spectacular. It was near sunset and was late. It seemed to be saving itself. It shot off higher and gushier than ever. It rainbowed right into an orange sunset catching every last bit of sunlight in a lavender sky.

Those guys were right. You never get tired of watching it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Yellowstone Then and Now

Normally this time of year I am at Cornerstone Festival.

But not this year. I'm leaving tomorrow for Yellowstone where we'll get to see if our daughter really can make a bed with tight corners. She works at Old Faithful in housekeeping.

It has been 32 years since I was last at Yellowstone and though some changes take thousands of years, millions, billions, I know a lot has changed at Yellowstone since I last worked there. Since that time the black mountain beetle has decimated the stands of lodgepole pines, a species of fir tree that one would have thought would NEVER go away--just like carrier pigeons--there were so many. So populous in fact that a great lodge was constructed of nothing but lodgepole pines. The Old Faithful Inn, the largest log cabin hotel in the world.
Also after I left the park a wildfire got out of control--back then the policy was let it burn, as controlled burns and other contained wildfires were actually good for the ecology and for the nation's forests. Except in 1988 the fire went viral and burned a total of 793,880 acres or 36 percent of the park.

I'm starting to feel anxious. That the park will seem somehow diminished in reality from the memories I took away. Back then the employees knew all the secret cool places to sneak off to. I worked at Lake Hotel and the first thing employees did was go off and day-hike Elephant Back.
 I'd like to see if it's still there. I doubt the Mud Slinger is still around. Yellowstone is situated on top of a geothermal caldron. The landscape is constantly evolving and the first year I was there I heard about the Mud Slinger, a combination geyser and mud pot. I got directions from a guy who worked as a busboy and borrowed a bike and rode out to it and then had to hike back in. It definitely was NOT on any tourist maps. You could tell you were getting close by the smell. Egg water or sulfur.  There was a huge mud cone that rose up perhaps 15 feet--according to my distant memory--and that mother slung hot mud well over half a football field. Only a fool would get close enough to see what she could do.
The next year I traveled back from my location at Old Faithful Snow Lodge where I was the worst comptroller's assistant in the world. Me, who can't get past the 5x in the times table and needs a calculator to subtract 1 from 1. I had absolutely no idea of how to rectify a cash drawer that might be off. It just was and I recorded it as such in a ledger.

That summer the Mud Slinger was a pathetic thing. The mud cone had melted down to a circle of mud the consistency of wet cement that occasionally burped--blurp, blurp, blurp. I've seen grits boiling more excitedly. I daresay it might be even more arthritic--if even there, or it might, like a lot of us, gotten fat, spread out a little bit, to become a field of blurpy messiness.

Things evolve, nature changes. I wonder if Yellowstone will recognize me.

WHILE I'M GONE check out where I will be guest blogging on July 9th!!!!

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Reprise--Now is all there is

I wrote this poem last year, late spring, before the last Cornerstone Festival. This week I would have been there at the fest grounds, in Bushnell, possibly at the Wal-Mart in Macomb. This is for all of you--writing your memories at Cornerstone Memories, because now is what we have left.

Now is all there is

Now is all there is.
We never once thought it would change.
There would always be dusty roads and distances to cover
And egg water and mildewed hay bales and volleyballs hitting us in the head.
There would always be long lines, too many people, and heat
That descended like a sweat fog covering the land like a pestilence,
Or like a brick of congealed gummi bears left out too long.
Every year there was summer and there was Cornerstone,
We lived all year planning, scheduling, debating,
Coming up with a theme,
making T-shirts, producing press kits, ordering doughnuts,
And yet we were never ready.
Never prepared with enough golf pencils at registration, never enough volunteers, never enough
This and that and so we made Wally-runs. Back and forth, there and back.
And always we added on, just one more thing to the list
Or stopped for a DeeQue, or brought back coffee or a water gun
Because there was always so much cash floating around; we could never run out.
The lines at the front gate stretched for miles,
Down Murphy’s black top all the way to route 9.
The state police had to come in and direct traffic.
We had to have three entrances to handle all the cars,
We banned driving on the grounds because of all the people.
One year 22,000 came.
The queues at the shower were so long, people bathed in the lake.
James’ only job was stocking the portojohns which were emptied around the clock.
It was faster to walk than take a golf cart. We thought it would always be like this.
Children got sick, threw up, wet their sleeping bags.
Storms came and swamped the fields and almost brought down Main Stage.
One year the exhibition tent was rent in two and everyone pitched in to pick up.
We came to expect the unexpected.
That one life-changing show
Where the Holy Spirit fell and the band played
On and on and on and no one went home and
The sun came up and all that was left was the story
Of how awesome it had been.
Bride trashed the hall—where are those guys now?
Are they still Christians? Are they still singing?
Or have they entered politics, a divide almost as wide as secular and saved.
Remember when Steve Taylor jumped off the stage at Grayslake
And broke his leg and Mark Heard played his last concert
And then called for an ambulance.
Remember when Kerry Livgren sang “Dust in the Wind” and a breeze
Rippled the Cornerstone banner above him.
We thought it’d always be this way.
That no matter what: we could fix it, collect our collective energies,
Throw the massive weight of a Jesus People nation at obstacles.
Remember when we all had long hair, before we went New Wave,
Before we grayed, before we had no hair.
Our Jesus People boys would work an entire festival
And then hold a softball tournament afterwards,
Playing against each other.
Today we barely have enough players or interest to fill a team roster.
We never thought it would end.
Even as others came and went,
We always thought we’d be here,
And that it would go on and on and on.
But people gave up sleeping on the ground,
They no longer can walk those long distances.
The heat kills them, really.
We no longer stage dive at the show, or body surf;
We can’t dance. Or forgot how.
Our kids (the reason we first came) grew up.
They can’t make it back because of work, student loans.
Or they stopped listening to Christian music.
What is Christian music?
What is a Christian band?
Hardly anyone makes that distinction anymore.
Why should they?
So despite the deaths (they have another festival to attend),
The divorces, the disappointments,
The foreclosures, the lack of jobs, the job changes,
Retirement. Because there is a Rock that
Rolls, because a rolling stone gathers no moss
(except Ami Moss will be there with the Unfortunate),
But most of all
Because one last time—
It is about now.
Now is all we have.