Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Empathy for a New Year

Empathy and New Year
By James Schuyler

--an excerpt

New Year is nearly here
and who, knowing himself, would
endanger his desires
resolving them
Awake at four and heard
a snowplow not rumble—
a huge beast
at its chow and wondered
is it 1968 or 1969?
for a bit. 1968 had
such a familiar sound.
Got coffee and started
reading Darwin: so modest,
so innocent, so pleased at
the surprise that he
should grow up to be him. How
grand to begin a new
year with a new writer
you really love. A snow
shovel scrapes: it's
twelve hours later
and the sun that came
so late is almost gone:
a few pink minutes and
yet the days get
longer. Coming from the
movies last night snow
had fallen in almost
still air and lay
on all, so all twigs
were emboldened to
make big disclosures.
It felt warm, warm
that is for cold
the way it does
when snow falls without
wind. "A snow picture," you
said, under the clung-to
elms, "worth painting." I
said, "The weather operator
said, `Turning tomorrow
to bitter cold.' " "Then
the wind will veer round
to the north and blow
all of it down." Maybe I
thought it will get cold
some other way. You
as usual were right.
It did and has. Night
and snow and the threads of life
for once seen as they are,
in ropes like roots.

--poor James, the naivety of January
1968 proved to be a bad year
But this poem shows great hope

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Year's End

I write on the back of a scrap envelope,
a message from Target that my account may have been compromised.
       Oh, well.

The snowy owl teases us at the beach again,
     flying from the peaked-hut of Daniel's Mexican Food
          to a snow-packed dune, dirty with blown sand.
He/She stands as an emblem,
          elusive nature in a city by the shore.

We have lived here these many years, never migrating
--as opposed to the snowy owl we've come to observe--
     lived in Uptown on snow-packed sidewalks,
              dirty with trash trodden underfoot.
We'll see out the old, say goodbye to all that is gone
     to friends who have moved on
          and to the farm, to the lake, the festival
             the businesses that have folded.

We are on the cusp of something new,
     though it is hard to know, living in this ordinary.
We sometimes forget where we've come from
     or we are overwhelmed by our frailties, our fears.
So that the new stares back at us, like an enemy.

But it is only the snowy owl,
      fleeting, here one minute and gone the next
          landing arbitrarily, beyond us.
This is what we have to look forward to:
        More snow, more owls, more wind-driven sand,
              more notices from Target, more every day ordinary-ness,
                       more of more, out there, on the horizon, eyes wide open


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Let It Snow

Already this winter we’ve had a couple of snows with more predicted for this weekend.

Yup. A White Christmas!!

I was reminded in a recent conversation about a sledding hill I always went to growing up near Kettering, Ohio. It was famously named Suicide Hill. This was a real sled eater. Approaching the climb there were barrel fires fed by broken wooden sleds sacrificed to Suicide Hill.

The hill was deceptive. Trees lined the descent so that any veering brought the sledder into contact with them. As a kid I was always bailing, letting gravity take the sled into it’s gentle good night, the tight fist of death. I cannot count how many sleds my brothers, sister, and I ruined.

The back of Suicide Hill was just as dangerous as the front—though perhaps not as many trees. A ride this direction was longer and not as fast, but full of moguls or bumps that sent me flying. The community golf course where the hill was located was the product of glacial moraines: imagine icy fingers digging into soft ground creating drumlins and ridges. I think the golf course was called Hills & Dales.

Just getting to the top of the hill required digging in the heels of my boots and hanging on to tree branches, a bit like climbing hand-over-hand. Sometimes I wondered if it would be better just to go on my hands and knees. Once at the top you’d have to catch your breath. Standing at the brink looking down—especially as a little kid abandoned by my older brothers and sister—it was steep. Somehow I don’t remember this stopping me though.

I Googled suicide hill kettering and right away something like 6 million results came up—a rush of nostalgia. From a forum (about another structure in the park—a boarded up tower—which I’ll write about later in another blog post):
Aug 13, 2009
9:57 AM
It was there when we used to sled ride on "suicide hill" about 1955, and my father said that it was there when he was in high school and had a car, about 1937.
Mikey, Gatlinburg, TN

And this from 2009: Medics carry four off 'Suicide Hill' - WDTN.com

And this souvenir T-shirt:
And this article from 1996:


January 3, 1996 | Copyright
DAYTON, Ohio -- Four women broke their backs in sledding accidents last month on a golf course slope known as ''Suicide Hill.''
All four women were treated at Miami Valley Hospital's emergency room.
''It was strange, because they were practically carbon copies of each other,'' said Dr. Norman Schneiderman, medical director of the emergency and trauma center.
The women all hit the same bump on the slope at the 12th tee of Community Golf Course in suburban Kettering and went airborne. As they came down again onto their sleds, they suffered compression fractures to the lower back.

There is even a Suicide Hill Facebook page.

So often our memory plays tricks on us. Memories more times than not don’t synch with reality. The biggest, the highest, the whatever is usually brought down to earth when revisited. Here is one instance where the memory is not distorted or exaggerated by time.

Suicide Hill is one badass motha.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Uptown, the book

Bob Rehak was a young man in the 1970s who took the Purple line in from Evanston into the city to his job downtown in advertising. His passion though was photography, and what he saw from his train window as he passed Argyle, Lawrence, and Wilson L train stops intrigued him. There was a variety of life out on the streets below the tracks. Messy, disturbing life. I’ve noticed that many creative people are somehow energized by chaos, and Bob Rehak was somehow curious enough to bat away his fears, get off the train, and walk the dirty, trash-filled sidewalks with his camera and take photographs.
Though I don’t know if he would classify it as “taking” as he describes people in Uptown in the mid-1970s though mostly poor were generous; they gladly gave Bob permission to photograph them.
Uptown was a port of entry for immigrants because of the relative low-cost housing in the neighborhoods. There was a large population of migrants from Appalachia, social activists, the down-and-out, and skid row bums. And kids. The schools were teeming with kids as opposed to today when 2 elementary schools in Uptown closed because of low numbers. This was before working-class families began to be squeezed out of Uptown in favor of the trendy hipster—many single or couples without kids. Before the developers moved in.
This book took me back to when I first came to Uptown in 1982. Believe me it was no picnic. Every night the cops had to be called to break up fights. Fire trucks screamed down the streets—especially in the 4500 bl0ck of Magnolia and Malden—it seemed every night a building burned. Bob Rehak quotes a firefighter saying his was the busiest unit, with as many as 400 fires a year. http://bobrehak.com/wordpress/portfolio-item/firefighters/
I’ve been loaning out my copy left and right and many of my friends are ordering their own. It probably took me 5 nights to go through the coffee-table size book because after about a half hour I would be exhausted remembering. Each photograph takes me back. I remember that submerged stoop leading down to an abandoned basement apartment stuffed with litter. I remember hunchbacked old ladies coming back from the grocery carrying the few items they could carry. I remember the guy on crutches missing a leg asking for money out front of the Wooden Nickel on Wilson Avenue. By the time we moved into the old Chelsea Hotel it was a dive, long neglected by a landlord that let it crumble and pipes freeze and break.
There’s still time to order your copy for Christmas.
With his book Uptown, Bob Rehak shows us who we once were and where we’ve come from. It is a visual archive and a real gem.

And just for fun--here's one I found at Uptown Update, Wilson and Broadway from 1955, a Christmas street scene

Monday, December 9, 2013

Fruitcakes Unite!

Mom’s Fruitcake

Just the word “fruitcake” evokes nostalgia for some and crass jokes from others. It has been the focus of much ridicule by people especially of my generation. Today’s “kids” probably donn’t even know what one is. (Not sure if they’re lucky or not—see I’m still stuck in a fruitcake stereotype.)

I’ll readily admit I’m not a fan of the fruitcake. Maybe it was the rum or the sheer density of the thing. An absolute brick. My mom’s fruitcake probably weighed 11 pounds once wrapped and ready to mail. I remember Dad lugging a couple of these to the post office every year about this time in order for it to arrive before Christmas. I couldn’t help wonder: won’t it be old, stale, inedible by then? I had no idea in my child’s imagination that these things are archival. They literally can last forever. For me now, with both Mom and Dad gone, the fruitcake is a memory touchstone.

Mom would shop for the ingredients because none of it was stuff we had around the house (and believe me, Mom had a Depression Era pantry, meaning she would never run short of anything.) She’d buy candied fruit in little plastic containers—cherries, oranges, lemons—in colors not naturally possible. They looked radioactive. Pulsating. I sneaked one and these alone tasted horrible—and yet they were the fruit, the foundation of the fruitcake. I remember having to crack nuts, pecans and walnuts. I felt like a prisoner consigned to a rock pile. Also I believe the recipe called for rum—and perhaps it was this ingredient that gave it its longevity. Possibly the point was that the fruitcake ferment and take on a life of its own, beyond the 21st century.

BUT, more than this, more than the actual fruitcake itself, comes to me another meaning. Call me sentimental, but it is love. All this flurry of activity cost Mom and Dad time. It meant special shopping and carving out a whole evening for the making and baking. The batter was so thick Mom would ask Dad (Harold come in here a minute) to stir it with a wooden spoon. I’m surprised it didn’t snap the spoon in half. Then the cake had to “sit” to cool. Next it got wrapped and placed in a round tin. Dad had to stand in line at the post office, the weight of 2 of these breaking his arms.

Love because they were never for us. (I think ONCE Mom made one for the family and I remember my brothers making fun of it, feeding it to the dog, etc. If I’d been Mom I would have thrown it at them to shut them up.) She made them for others. I think one went to her Mom as Dad’s mom passed away when I was pretty young. Sometimes Mom would just say it was going to Upper. This was Upper Sandusky for short, her hometown, a place not as much upper as lower on the Sandusky River, but never mind that. Even if Grandma didn’t eat it, others might stop by. It was for the relatives still left in Upper. To let them know they weren’t forgotten and they were special beneficiaries of her fruitcake.

The other recipient was the Wards. Father and Mother Ward were former employers of my parents. They ran a little motor court between Huron and Vermillion in a lakeside community called Mitiwanga. By the time my family spent vacations there in the 70s pollution was chocking the lake and there was dire predictions Lake Erie would become extinct. (And it would have, except for persistent environmentalists and the loss of manufacturing and industry in that part of the country.) Probably for 30 years my mother baked and shipped a fruitcake to the Wards. Even as a kid, I recognized this devotion as love.

So to all fruitcakes everywhere, Merry Christmas! and may you continue to live on, beyond this century, this cynical generation, and find a resurgence in the hearts and bellies of the next!!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Museum Hours--a masterpiece

In 2 days I’ve seen 2 films by directors with the same sounding name. Inside Llewyn Davis was directed by the Coen brothers. We saw a sneak preview at the Block Cinema in Evanston Thursday night for FREE. Crazy.

Then the next night we caught Museum Hours (by the director Jem Cohen) also at the Block. The same student was there taking tickets as the night before. I asked him how he’d liked Inside Llewyn Davis and he answered: bleak. I think I could agree with that assessment.

Museum Hours was a visual masterpiece. Like most memorable art, it was a revelation of the ordinary. Whitmanesque.

Cities of “hurrying, feverish electrical crowds.” “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than the present.” (Democratic Vistas, 1871)

Just as Whitman represented ordinary American life pre-20th C, this film displays the hollowness of the post 20th C. Ugly, urban landscapes beneath winterish bleach skies devoid of a sun. A film or haze settles over the city of Vienna—and over its population. Everything seems less bright. There is trash, hunchbacked elderly people attempting to cross traffic-choked streets. Worse yet the billboards—huge advertisements that stand out or blend in depending upon the scene.

It is a movie about seeing, being, dwelling. It is part Zen and part poetry.

***from IMDb
When a Vienna museum guard befriends an enigmatic visitor, the grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum becomes a mysterious crossroads which sparks explorations of their lives, the city, and the ways artworks reflect and shape the world.

The guard learns to view his surroundings with new eyes. He takes her to places tourists don’t go, free places, spots where he has felt an emotional connection. So goes their relationship. Each has their own way of looking and the connection is in how they share their random observations—in the midst of death and decay.

Watching them on screen as they traverse the bleak city is a sublime joy. The small things, the ordinary begins to take on the inner luminosity of an oil painting. The dialogue particularly shines. It is spontaneous with a feeling of authenticity. Just as the Bruegel paintings of medieval peasant life transform before our eyes into everyday reality, we begin to see the bigger picture. Of how this life we live can at once be a poem and a masterpiece—if only we see it with renewed eyes or through the eyes of another.

The movie unlocks a treasury of linked images, connections between art and the art of life, between the real and unreal, the senses and sensual aesthetic. One is truly amazed that unbeknownst to them they are living a timelessness as it were or animated still life.

On another note I urge you as the holiday approaches—yay! as it is already upon some of us—to reach out to outsiders, aliens, and strangers. Welcome the exchange student who needs a place to stay when the campus dorm closes down for winter break. The homeless under the bridge. The veteran of wars and elderly. Seeing the world through other eyes, awakens us, opens our eyes. Much like how Museum Hours did for me.

I’ll next continue this blog—reporting on MORE of the ordinary by a review of a new coffee table-size book of photographs taken in Uptown, Chicago in the late to mid 70s.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mom's Cranberry Relish

This time of year always stirs up a lot of memories. And one memory I had over Thanksgiving--actually people kept reminding me--was my mother's cranberry relish recipe.

about 5 cups whole cranberries
start with 1 cup sugar, but you'll definitely be adding more
and 1 WHOLE orange, the whole thing

I remember when I called Mom to ask for it--she made a point of saying, the whole orange. But I usually cut it up just to check for seeds and make sure that pimply thing on one end has been removed.

Way back when, before what we now call a food processor, Mom had a huge kitchen contraption made out of die-cast metal and weighing about 50 lbs that did almost everything. It was like a wood chipper. A WHOLE orange was nothing for this baby. It could juice a rock. She had attachments she'd put on--like she used to make her own goose liver pâté.The thing actually had more attachments than her ElectroLux vacuum cleaner--another heavy-duty appliance. They were all made out of old tank parts I believe.
She'd dump in the cranberries. Shhrrrr. Then the WHOLE orange. Shhhrrrr. Then more sugar than you might think--to tone down the bitterness of the cranberries and that orange peel.

That's it. No cooking and not a lot of fuss.

Monday, December 2, 2013

I just can't help myself

I just can't help myself--James Schuyler (my boy) seems to be saying in his poem "December"--

Each December! I always seem to think I hate "the over-commercialized event" and then bells ring, or tiny light bulbs wink over the entrance to Bonwit Teller or Katherine going on five wants to look at all the empty sample gift-wrapped boxes up Fifth Avenue in swank shops and how can I help falling in love?

My sentiments exactly. Every year after Thanksgiving I cringe, sometimes actually feeling sick at all the commercials on TV and how the Christmas season seems to be one big Black Friday blow out sale. I can't stand the big news always focusing on how many people got trampled at Wal-Mart or what the retailers are predicting. Where every Christmas seems to be about overdrive and going crazy with retail frenzy.

Then James steps into my heat, mind, soul and says it is so easy to be jaded until we see all the white lights or the colors or the carolers or one nicely lit tree and it all goes out the window, the cynicism, the angry tiredness, and I open up the door just a crack and let the season in.

Here is his simple "Advent"

Open my eyes on the welcome
rosy shock of sunshine.

Open the first little door
of my Advent calendar:

a darling hobby horse
on wheels. Open

the window a crack: and
quickly close it against

a knife-like draught. The day
looks warmer than it is.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Good News Update

I'm in this:
Click HERE for link to buy.

AND, my story "Exit 24" has been nominated for New Stories from the Midwest 2015 anthology. Fingers crossed it makes the final cut. Thanks to Stoneboat Journal for setting this up.