Thursday, July 30, 2015

Liars' League NYC--There's a Fungus Among Us

Check out an upcoming event in New York City. Liars’ League takes place at 7pm on the first Wednesday of every other month at KGB Bar in the East Village. Liars’ League NYC was founded in 2012. Selected stories are performed in front of a live audience featuring trained actors reading original short stories by emerging and established writers. Stories are also available via podcast at iTunes Store and Stitcher

The event is scheduled for Wednesday, August 5th - Short & Sweet - Flash Fiction.

My story is a flash memoir piece titled: Fungus Among Us.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Bicycle and the Woman

A portrait from the 1890s at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Susan B. Anthony said cycling did more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. Credit National Museum of American History

In the late 1800s the bicycle transformed from the penny farthing, those impossibly high highwheelers, to something not too different from what we ride today—except it didn’t cost over $5,000.
Just imagine all you needed to go beyond your village was to put air in your tires. In one day you could go further than you could simply walking. And, you didn’t need a companion. It could be done solo without the help of a conductor or driver. It didn’t matter what color you were, class status (even today I see a lot of homeless on bikes), or gender. Suddenly women could become mobile.
Bicycles freed the woman.
“Myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world,” wrote Frances Willard, a founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. As women took to the activity, they quickly realized that long skirts were a tangling hazard and that corsets compromised their aerobic capacity. Some began wearing split skirts or bloomers and loosened tops, while others shortened their hems.—from a recent NY Times article
Women were able to wander further and further afield.
Small wonder that Susan B. Anthony said of cycling, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.”
On July 23 I leave for a week of cycling. Minneapolis to Chicago. Check back to the blog the beginning of August for a trip report. I plan to use a combination of on-road and rail-to-trails connecting with friends in both Minneapolis and Milwuakee. Wish me a safe journey.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Before 1989 was the Cold War. There was also no grace.

I remember when my daughter Grace was born the summer of 1989. In the middle of the night I’d get up and feed her. I kept a little radio playing by her bed for white noise, so that every little noise didn’t wake her up. It was just she and I and WGN or WBBM in the wee hours of the night.

Then one night while I was nursing her within the glow of the radio dial I heard the most fabulous news. I use this word because it sounded like a fable. Often I dozed while feeding her. The announcer said the Wall had fallen.

There had been tremors, rumblings leading up to this earthquake that brought down the Berlin Wall. Czech citizens were being issued passes to go to the West for holidays—once a rarity—and in Poland, Solidarity had made headway in their fight for workers and nationalistic rights. Ultimately Solidarity saw the end of Soviet rule and helped move Poland toward democracy. In my dream-like state I thought I heard the news reader say the Wall had come down.

This was confusing. Because when I went to bed there had been a Soviet Union and now it sounded like things were falling apart. And I hadn’t even been asleep that long.

I waited until a faint light entered the room and then I woke up my husband, whispering because the baby had finally gone back to bed. “Hey, the Wall has come down.”

He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Together we both listened to the radio as we were TV-less. We were astonished at how quickly the world had changed. By Christmas 1989 we were viewing images of the bodies of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, former dictator of Romania. Indeed, it was a new world.

But it didn’t last long. This summer Grace will turn 26 and she is now living in a post-cold war, post 9/11 world where more than ever we feel unsafe. Russia has ambitions; ISIS (as well as other forms of extremism) is threatening the pan-Middle East, plus polemic politics here in the US make us feel once again the chill of a Cold War.

For one brief space of time, in the middle of the night, while nursing my newborn there was this thing called hope. Every once in a while I like to revisit that moment. Happy Birthday Grace.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Treasures in the Sand

New work is up at Mothers Always Write, a flash memoir piece titled Treasures in the Sand about taking my daughter—age 5 or 6—to the beach. What was I thinking! This place was a death trap.
 Please share the link:

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Girls of Summer

I’m waiting for the latest installment, for the 2015 picture of the Brown sisters.
In 1975 I was 16 going on 17; I recognize a lot of who I was in the portraits of the girls. Now women. Now probably grandmas. Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie. I don’t know them, yet I see them everywhere. The uncompromising stare, slight smiles or upturned mouth, but no teeth; strength born of change and the patience to endure whatever is coming next. Death, divorce, separation from loved ones, circumstances beyond their control. Lines and wrinkles, gray wiry hair, unadorned, plaited, pulled back, shorn, blowing in the breeze.

My emotions are so tied into the life represented by the photos that if they are late I worry. I know we are all aging, and that time waits for no woman. There will come a day when Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie become 3, then two, until one alone stands facing the camera. I feel their sisterhood, somehow included. The thought of losing even one pains me.

So I wait. And hope.
2014, Wellfleet, Mass. Nicholas Nixon

Friday, July 17, 2015

All Those Pictures (what do we do with them?)

I read an article (Chicago Tribune) on the Internet last week:

Basically someday our brains will be obsolete because we’ll all have smart phones and other devices reminding us to go to appointments, time to pull the laundry out of the dryer, pick up dry cleaning, make a left turn, buy birthday cards, etc.

We’ll never have to remember another phone number ever.

Most of the really important stuff will be up in the Cloud, and all we’ll have to do is type in a command to retrieve it or pull it down. I already google “that thing that somebody said” and other obscure phrases just to see what will prick my memory. Sometimes I have absolutely no idea at all of what it was I was trying to remember, but after googling and refining my search I can usually find what I was looking for. Now if I could just find what’s in my purse—but that’s another matter.

The article talked about “digital amnesia.” In a survey (on-line??) 90 percent said that “they use the Internet as an online extension of their brain.”

The point is: we don’t need to remember. Because if we do need to access a fact or image all we have to do is google it and it comes back to us in a second. How many times were you in the middle of a conversation and lost your train of thought or the name or face was there at the tip of your tongue and brain—and you paused a minute to check it on Facebook or using your device to confirm what it was you were talking about. Like all the time, right?

This is a good thing because we don’t have to waste our brain cells remembering stuff and it’s a bad thing because—what the heck are we remembering?

In effect, we are already becoming one with the machine: “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found,” according to the Science article.

That one thing, you know, uhh . . .is only a click away.

Now—what about all those endless food pictures and selfies we take? And never get around to looking at. Are we taking pictures so that we never have to rely on memory, actually remember a special evening out and that the oysters were to die for . . .

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

1995 Heat Wave in Chicago

It has been 20 years since the infamous heat wave of 1995 where over 800 Chicagoans died over a 4 – 5-day period of extreme temperatures and humidity. Mostly the marginalized: the homeless and the elderly succumbed.
It was also during this same time that Marie James and I sat down to record her sad life story. Here is an excerpt from Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady.
Nineteen ninety-five was the hottest summer on record in the city of Chicago; ­nearly eight hundred people died in July. The air was heavy, foul with the stench of rotting garbage coming in from the alley. You couldn’t find relief anywhere.
Into the lobby of the inner-city mission where I live and work came Marie James—white haired, with blue sparkling eyes set in the midst of a wrinkled and dirt-tanned face. She had been coming to the mission for twenty years, looking for food and friendship. The mercury was already past 105 degrees, and I had no energy for giving. I wanted to be left alone and not have to face a promise I had made; I told Marie I would record her life story. I regretted that promise when I saw her pull into the lobby, her cart packed full of sour milk jugs and old newspapers. As we sat and chatted for a minute I saw cockroaches crawl in and out of old food stuff on her cart. It was all I could do not to abandon the project then and there.
Despite the extreme heat, the bugs, and the smell, I turned the tape recorder on . . . and it was magic. I began a journey in the cool Sand Hills of Nebraska. Marie’s story transported me out of my present discomfort into another life, another time. It was a story that changed me.   
—Jane Hertenstein

The Sand Hills

I was born in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, near a small town called Spalding.
I grew up during the Depression. Many, many days went by when there was no food, just milk from the cows. In that part of the country a lot of people died of starvation.
I know as sure as I’m sitting on this chair that God had His hand on me before I was even born. There were eleven children in our family. I was my mother’s ninth child. One day my mother woke up, she smelled the coffee boiling and got sick to her stomach. She ran out onto the back porch and vomited green.
This is how my sister Faith told me the story. My father was gone, but that was nothing; he was gone most of the time. My oldest sister, Chloe, who was about ­nineteen then, was making cornmeal mush in a big pan, stirring it with a wooden spoon. Mother said, “Chloe, I’m pregnant. I’m not going to have this baby. You know what I’m going to do? The woman down the road had a miscarriage; she fell down. I’m going to go upstairs and jump out of the window.” My sister dropped the spoon into the pan, “Mother, you’re going to kill yourself.”
“Well, so be it.”
She went upstairs, sat on the windowsill, and let herself fall to the ground. She got the wind knocked out of her. She came in the house laughing, “I guess when I’m pregnant I’m pregnant clear up to my neck. I’m as pregnant now as when I jumped out the window. I don’t know how we’re going to feed this baby, but we’re going to have to find a way.”
I was born on a Saturday, May 6, 1926. Once my sister said to me, “Marie, you are going to shed a lot of tears in your life.” I asked, “Why do you say that?” “Because it was misting outside when you were born. All the time Mom was giving birth it was misting.” I laughed at her, “Oh, come on. I don’t believe that crazy stuff.” But it did ­happen. All my life I’ve been shedding tears.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Mid-Life Crisis

Serious, everything I own is falling apart. Is this indicative of a life crisis? I need new shoes, bath towels, socks and underwear. Most of the clocks have stopped and the light bulbs are burnt out. My sheets have holes in them and the faucet leaks, the handle having cracked.

Every where I turn there is catastrophe, the old things cannot be counted upon.

And, I wonder which to fix first: the inside or the outside.

I need a handy man, a stormy-weather friend.

in 1 week I will see my friend Steffie!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

These bright and shining days

These bright and shining days
I read Mary Oliver and remember
my little shack at the tip of Cape Cod,
the dancing surf, and the plovers
diving and darting, skittering
across the sand. And
NPS signs warning me to
keep away from their nesting grounds.

All hail the power to mate and love.
All hail the powers that be. It is resolved.
That all marriages are equal.

She Wakes Early, Thirst, and
A Thousand Mornings.
Wide windows looking out
upon the world.
Thank you God.
Thank you God.
Thank you God.
Thank you all those
who have gone before me,
leaving a trail of bread crumbs.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


By Mary Oliver

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way god has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart.  Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away, expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

     Andrew Raczkowski, one of several artists from Austin Special Chicago, who will be displaying their art at Everybody's Coffee, July 10 - August 7

Friday, July 3, 2015

Just Pick Up the Phone

It is now July and I went into a card shop.
July had always been a big month for birthdays.
My mother was born July 11th and my husband’s
grandmother Thelma’s was July 13. My father and
daughter share a birthday, July 24th. My habit is
to take a walk or bike in the afternoon so I walked
south on Broadway and found a shop selling cards.
Looking over all the humorous and sometimes erotic
ones, I didn’t think they were quite right. Then there
are the earnest ones that don’t seem to work either.
I just need something which says I love you. I miss you.
I wish you were here. I wish things could stay the same.
But most of my July birthdays are gone, and though my
daughter lives quite close we don’t see each other as
much as we used to. Her two jobs keep her busy.

So I left empty-handed and walked home, dreaming
that maybe I would just pick up the phone and give
them a call.
in memory of Fred Burkhart, would have been 74 on June 23rd

avocado green wall phone, we used to have one in the kitchen

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Further Along the Way

For 28 years summer meant Cornerstone Festival. Beginning in 1984, I and my family would make the familiar odyssey out to the festival grounds. This year would have been our 32nd festival. More than half my life was Cornerstone Festival. My engagement picture was taken at the fairgrounds in Lake County following Cornerstone ’86. I was EXTREMELY pregnant while at Cornerstone ’89, aptly named Family Reunion. By the time my daughter was a year old we had moved the festival to Bushnell, Illinois where we had purchased some property for the express purpose of holding the festival there. It seemed like we might be able to stay forever.

2012 was the end of the run.

Chalk it up to a downturn in the economy, an aging Jesus population, other concert options—but we had seen a significant decrease in attendance after our peak years of 2000 and 2001 where the festival drew close to 20,000. Cars lined up days in advance of opening day. There evolved a whole pre-Cornerstone culture of kids with their generator-fueled amps playing beside parked cars. The state police assisted us in crowd control on the one main road back to the property. The portos were on continuous round-the-clock, 24-7 cleaning and emptying schedule. That says a lot, right there. I had a friend whose clothes got wet the first day and put them out to dry. That night someone pitched a tent over them and he ended up wearing the same outfit for the rest of the festival—until the people next to him packed up to leave.

Then suddenly we didn’t need three entrance gates or an opening-day registration crew to get the cars in off the road. We didn’t need to schedule around the clock porto cleaners. There were still popular concerts that were jammed packed; mostly, though, we could find a seat. People started sitting instead of standing near the front. We were getting old, but not tired of the festival. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.

I still remember sitting on the hillside looking down at Main Stage in that natural bowl of an amphitheater with a stream running past the semis that worked as green rooms and were somewhat air conditioned, relief from the heat. Just as you got to the point where you couldn’t stand it anymore, the heat, the intense sun beating down on you from a cloudless sky, the sun lowered, a gift. And that same sky went all orange and purple, rose-colored in the diffused light, filtered through a stratosphere of dust worked up by feet, golf carts, and vehicles always on the move. The heat softened, nudged down to a clammy comfort level, and the insects came out a thousand strong to chirp and whine in cadence with whoever was on the stage. Rita Springer. Oh, how I love you, oh, how I love you. We sat there in descending twilight, grateful, before the sun set in a firework crescendo.

Cornerstone sunset. Photo by Neil E. Das
Life was beautiful at that moment.