Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Southern Ohio

I took a break from the KKK the past couple of weeks. Actually a break from blogging about recent events in Charlottesville. A break from the politics, the statements, retractions, mis-statements, arguments over statues, etc, etc, etc.

It’s exhausting. On many sides.

I’m from Dayton, Ohio, Centerville to be exact. A well-heeled community, triple A high school, definitely upper-middle class. But as a kid I rode my bike everywhere, anywhere two wheels might take me. I also met some friends at camp and often drove to Cadiz and locales close to it in southeastern Ohio, formerly coal country. Then later I went to OU in Athens to finish my Bachelors degree where I rode my bike and ran in the foothills surrounding the university.

The Ohio I remember was this: colored leaves in autumn, small towns, Main Streets, hills, small liberal arts colleges, ravines, waterfalls, hiking in Yellow Springs, car wrecks on Friday nights.
Conkles's Hollow State Nature Preserve Rim Trail with fall color in the Hocking Hills of Ohio
I saw Ohio from the saddle, from the passenger and driver’s side of the car, with these two feet hiking the hills or walking uptown on Saturday night. I’m not trying to be sentimental, but perhaps years have a way of softening memories. We look through a filtered lens that casts a golden glow over events—yet I still recall the loneliness of growing up, the feeling that no one got me, that I was somehow an outcast. But that’s to be expected, I guess.

What I do not remember is an empathy for the South or the Confederate flag. In school I learned Ohio fought for the North, that we were on the “right” side. There were no African Americans in my school, and only a few by the time I was in high school. Folks were conservative, mostly. Conservatives were white, well-off, and superior to not only minorities but to hillbillies. White trash.

Flash forward to today where the Republicans my dad voted for are far and few between. Both of my parents could care less about the wedge issues of today (ie abortion, bathroom bills). They were conservatives along economic lines, which is still a hoot as they were the biggest recipients of big government as any generation. But back to my point.

When did Ohioans start flying the Confederate flag and marching with the KKK. James Alex Fields Jr. the driver of the car used as a weapon which killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville was from Maumee, Ohio, up in the Toledo area.

Many of you know I LOVE to bike tour and when not riding I read Crazy Guy on a Bike an on-line platform that archives people’s bicycling journals. I get a lot of inspiration from reading other people’s biking adventures. One woman was journaling her trip on the Adventure Cycling (maps, resources) Underground Railroad. Anyway she commented that after entering Ohio she was astonished at the number of Confederate flags she saw. One guy had the flag plus lawn signs for Trump/Pence right across the street from the John Parker home site. Parker was an African American who helped hundreds of slaves to freedom in the Underground Railroad resistance movement based in Ripley, Ohio.
There is no way to sum this up. It is not the Ohio I remember, yet it must be the Ohio that was always there, seething in some kind of bigoted Ohio underbelly. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Fred Burkhart , 1942 - 2014

End of August and my memories roll around to Fred. Fred Burkhart legendary artist and photographer, and, most importantly FRIEND died August 30, 2014. Wow, Fred has it been 3 years?

I wonder what Fred would be thinking these days. You see he was a pioneer, taking photos (not taking he’d say, the subject gave him their images, their permission) of the early Gay Pride parades in New Town now Boys Town. He also did a photo series on the Ku Klux Klan.

He was able to draw them in, never saying he believed what they did, but in general, being a curious, open guy. They invited him into their homes. He had photos of a KKK member and his kids eating breakfast, he had pics of the kids dressed up in dad’s KKK outfit, saluting a Nazi flag. They were incriminating, astoundingly honest photos.
photo credit: Fred Burkhart

Until a member asked, “When are you going to join us, bro?”

“I'd join the Girl Scouts before I joined you clowns,” Burkhart replied.

That led to a beating that, he said, “nearly left me dead in a hotel room.”

I’m not sure what’s happening with Fred’s archives. He has some amazing photos of Chicago’s gritty underground community.

“In every community I could find a kindred spirit," he said. "If you get past the politics, religion or sexual orientation, you will discover that the people in any group love their families and they love their ideas, even though they may hate everyone else.”

I wish you were here today Fred to maybe help me make sense of all the senselessness, all the divisions, all the hate. Rest in peace, my friend.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Labor Day

I know we’re a few weeks off from Labor Day (it’s coming up quick!)

Still ruminating about “Wichita Lineman” the Glen Campbell song, and the line: I know I need a small vacation.

As I mentioned Jimmy Webb who wrote the song lyrics was in the midst of a couple of projects and on deadline when Campbell called him requesting another hit song. No biggie.

I’m sure he had to go for stream-of-consciousness kind of composing, randomly stringing thoughts, lines, phrases together. Perhaps he thought I need a small vacation. As soon as I get done with all this I’m taking off, splitting town.

I’ve been conferring with a couple of engineers working on the CTA Wilson Red Line renovation for a photo exhibit at Everybody’s Coffee. We talked about representing all aspects, all the different kinds of laborers who contributed to getting this project done. It was a complete tear down of both tracks and station and rebuilding—all while keeping the train running.

Iron workers, construction, flaggers.

We’re looking forward to this next show. The city that works. Way to go!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse Viewing in Chicago

We’re supposed to get 80 - 85% coverage. If there is no cloud cover. Of course we’re not supposed to look directly at the sun.

My friend Beth Finke had an interesting take on all this. Here is her memory of a solar eclipse as a child. “On March 7, 1970 using a pinhole camera our school teachers taught us to make out of cardboard shoeboxes.” She goes on to relate that she is now blind (totally unrelated to the eclipse). And that there is an app for those who cannot see it this year. Here is a link to her blog post and to the app—to give you a virtual experience.

NASA (@nasa on Twitter) is also live streaming the eclipse which is set to begin here in Chicago at 11:54 a.m with maximum eclipse at 1:19 pm.

I’ve made for me and my friends view boxes. For instructions on how to make one of these is less than 10 minutes go here.

AND, more importantly, there is an ambiance soundtrack, NPR has put together a list. So has Spotify

Friday, August 18, 2017

The World Needs a little more Tenderness

New work accepted at

I submitted because I liked the look of these rambunctious girls--editors and founders of tenderness, yea
tenderness, yea was founded after a series of readings in new orleans, when we realized all the best writers we knew didn’t have a place to put their work. it’s a place for them, and a place for you too. 
we understand that the word tenderness means  “kindness and gentleness” as well as “a sensitivity to pain”, we want to know what this word means to you, as well as how the multitudes of its definition intersect. 
tenderness, yea is jo gehringer, zoë blair-schlagenhauf, and amelia seidel. please excuse our mess. 
I liked the idea that they were going out there and doing something. Crazy, I know. We all need to be a little crazy.

Will post when the piece is up. Until then, keep submitting.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Master Race

This is the phrase that keeps popping up inside my head. What does this mean?

It’s a bit like pre-destination. People are either born with it or without. Despite DNA, personality, determination, physical ability. A master race is about who your parents and grandparents are. The color of your skin, the color of your eyes, the shape of your lips, nose.

Growing up, even as a little kid, I knew all these distinctions who so unfair. Yet, I didn’t know what to do. I remember my father shouting at the TV, at a black football player, C’mon you spook, pick up the ball! I remember Howard Cosell, TV sports commentator, calling an African-American player a monkey. My father referred to Brazil nuts on the bridge mix as “nigger toes.”

I also remember a tension rising up inside of me, an inner voice whispering: This isn’t right.

No one had to tell me. Of course I was curious. Were Jews schemers? Money grabbers? I had no idea, I’d never met any. Until one day in 3rd grade for show and tell one of my classmates brought in her mother, a woman who seemed small and slightly hysterical. Her eyes darted around the room. The story she began to tell was about a camp, but it was unlike any camp I’d ever been to. She and her family escaped. She recounted how when they finally got something to eat her mother screamed at her about dropping a crumb. The tone of the mom’s voice (the one sitting in front of our group) was high-pitched, tight with emotion. There was palpable fear in her voice and eyes.

Afterwards I read as many Holocaust survivor stories as I could get my hands on through the library and the Scholastic book club. Like this book where I read about the Brown Shirts:

 Then there was this:

The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed a teacher in a small town in Iowa tried a daring classroom experiment. She decided to treat children with blue eyes as superior to children with brown eyes. I must have seen a clip of this on the news because I remember a part where a young girl begins to tear up from shame, from the affront of racism, the coldness of the teacher and loneliness when her friends turned their back on her.

I have many more memories of—what can I call it? except—that feeling that this is not right.

God, it’s been forty years and why am I sitting here at the keyboard crying. Yet I can so vividly recall the horror and—here’s something important—the implied implication, the collective guilt I felt. I believe (this is not science, just a theory) that all children with a conscience must also feel this and how they act upon these feelings determines who they will be for the rest of their life. Either someone who empathizes with those being discriminated against or someone who denies that feeling, rationalizes it away, or decides it’s not important. Or maybe even a joke.

I can remember as if it were yesterday: my friend’s parents had adopted African American children. Nicole’s brother and sister were black. They came to the house to pick up Nicole, likely the parents were out in the car because they didn’t live in our neighborhood. Without knowing who the child ringing the doorbell was my brother made the wisecrack, Hide the chicken. (We were sitting down at the dinner table.) And this is what I remember the most, how hard my parents laughed. I was horrified walking to answer the door. I didn’t have the words back then. My anger only made them laugh louder.

I’ve watched the clips of the Unite the Right March in Charlottesville, the news conferences and press statements by --- and I’m telling you now—that feeling rolls over me like waves. A hand flutters to my mouth.

I cannot change my past, the color of my skin, eyes, my nose and lips, but I can use this mouth to speak. This is not right.

I think I’m going to be sick for a long, long time.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Seeking Asylum

New story "Seeking Asylum" up at

“Things are a little crazy right now,” I tried to explain about the mess. My idea of crazy must be on a whole other planet from what was going on in Venezuela. I mean it was like Mad Max meets The Hunger Games down there. In an oil-rich/cash-poor country with empty grocery shelves and a president in denial, life had gone from difficult to a death spiral. There were not enough printing presses in Venezuela to keep up with the inflation. People were killing each other in the streets for toilet paper. I may only be slightly exaggerating. I only knew what I read in the papers and from Abraham’s essays. In his last paper I learned that he had been employed as an engineer. His specialty was hydroelectricity. Apparently Venezuela was powered not only by oil reserves but by water—except that there was a drought and levels in the reservoirs had fallen. Whole sections of the country were without power. The president called upon Venezuelan women to stop blow-drying their hair—as if that might fix the problem brought about by decades of mismanagement. 

The country was in an apocalyptic state of affairs—yet I couldn’t have this woman with me indefinitely.

“Only for a few days,” Abraham sought to reassure me. I had the distinct impression I was being taken advantage of, the same feeling I get outside Starbucks when the bums ask me for change. Just because I buy a coffee doesn’t mean I need to feel guilty about it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Wichita Lineman

Glen Campbell passed away last week. I really hadn’t listened to him for years. As a memoirist and someone interested in memories I was drawn to his heartbreaking song “I’m Not Going to Miss You”: the obvious reason being that he will no longer remember the people who once populated his memories. Campbell was about to enter the last stages of Alzheimer’s.

As I read the numerous tributes to him I came across a piece about one of his signature songs, “Wichita Lineman” and how it came to be. Jimmy Webb wrote the lyrics. He’d delivered on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Galveston” for Campbell. He was called upon at the last minute for a song to complete an album. Campbell was in the studio and needed something ASAP. And, could it be another town song.

From the BBC Culure:
"They called me and said, 'Can you write us a song about a town?'" he recalled in a Radio 2 documentary about Campbell's career.
"And I said, 'I'm not sure I want to write a song about a town right now. I think I've overdone that'.
"He said, 'well, can you do something geographical?'

Webb was in the midst of another project and wanted to pass. The song almost didn’t happen, but Webb had a flash. An image of a lonely telephone repairman all by himself at the top of a pole.

He had called up the image of a lineman from a childhood journey across the panhandle of Oklahoma.
"There's a place where the terrain absolutely flattens out," he told the BBC. "It's almost like you could take a [spirit] level out of your tool kit and put in on the highway, and that bubble would just sit right there on dead centre. It goes on that way for about 50 miles.
"In the heat of summer, with the heat rising off the road, the telephone poles gradually materialise out of this far, distant perspective and rush towards you.
"And then, as it happened, I suddenly looked up at one of these telephone poles and there was a man on top, talking on a telephone.
"He was gone very quickly, and I had another 25 miles of solitude to meditate on this apparition. It was a splendidly vivid, cinematic image that I lifted out of my deep memory while I was writing this song."

He acted upon this image and quickly wrote “Wichita Lineman” which went on to win Campbell a Grammy.

So the point being—when the pressure to write bears down, we sometimes produce our best work. We need to act on those flashes, those unbidden images that pop up out of seemingly nowhere. There really was no point, no resolution to the song—just an idea, that went on to resonate with listeners. It was said the song was a hit with soldiers fighting faraway in Vietnam. My guess is they understood that loneliness, missing loved ones, the feeling of being on a mission and all they had to do was get the job done and get home.

It’s surprising what can be communicated in a 3-minute song.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Flash Memoir: Writing Prompts to Get You Flashing

Available wherever you download books.

Baker & Taylor Blio
Baker-Taylor Axis360
Barnes & Noble
Gardners Extended Retail
Gardners Library
Inktera (formerly Page Foundry)
Library Direct

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Storytelling, and the ability to sympathize with one’s enemy

This weekend I began reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. 
It is literally the story of a sympathetic narrator. In this day and age of what sometimes feels like a civil war to read a novel from the point of view of a character living in a partitioned country and can yet understand life on both sides is truly refreshing. He puts himself into the head of a cast of characters—even the ones he has to compromise and kill in order to advance ideology.

It’s complicated.

Viet Thanh Nguyen recently wrote an article: "Trump Is a Great Storyteller. We Need to Be Better." 11 December 2016. This is an articulate essay written by an immigrant about the importance of words. When we allow leaders to subvert language and use rhetoric to alienate and hurt their own populations, then we have to stand up—call a lie a lie.

It’s interesting that since his election, several great authors have spoken up about their fears. Aleksandar Hemon has written several pieces around the election of Trump and the direction of America. You see, he comes at the idea of America from a place of absolute chaos: the Bosnian-Serbian War, and the bitter eruptions in both those places for the last 600 years.
Every Bosnian I know had a friend, or even a family member, who flipped and betrayed the life they had shared until, in the early 1990s, the war started. My best high-school friend turned into a rabid Serbian nationalist and left his longtime girlfriend in Sarajevo so he could take part in its siege. My favorite literature professor became one of the main ideologues of Serbian fascism.

Hemon knows personally what it was like when brother turned on brother and neighbor against neighbor.
My grandmother, once told me a story about her father, who had, one Bosnian winter during World War II, found himself on the way to having his throat slit by his neighbors. With his hands tied behind his back, he stood in line watching the people before him being slaughtered and thrown into the freezing river. When his turn came, he saved himself by leaping into the water before the killer could get to him. A few years later, after the war, my grandmother took lunch to his small store next to the local market. Outside the store, her father was drinking coffee with a man. In Bosnia, drinking coffee with someone is an act of friendship and intimacy, but she recognized her father’s coffee mate as one of the neighbors who had taken him to slaughter. “Do you know who this is?” my grandmother’s father asked her. “He was going to slit my throat.”

At this point in the story, I was shocked by the casualness of the exchange, so I asked my grandmother: “So what did the man say?”

She said: “Nothing. He just shrugged.”

Flannery O’Connor in her story “The Misfit” in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find tells the story of a band of escaped prisoners who take hostage a vacationing family lost on the backroads of Georgia. The violence in the story is downplayed, upstaged by the idea that we are only good when we have a gun to our heads. If the grandmother could have lived her life at gunpoint, so to speak, she could have gained the self-awareness and compassion that she’d lacked.

We are at a point, all of us, where we need to come face to face with our enemies—and they may be the person in the mirror.

AND let’s just keep this in mind—July 18, 2017 Trump administration and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is closing a decades-old office in the State Department that has helped seek justice for victims of war crimes.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Is there a prophet?

Is there a prophet?

Growing up I thought the strangest people ever were prophets. Of course, I was a strange little kid. All on my own I set out to read the Bible cover-to-cover. I also set out to read all the books in my elementary school library. I didn’t even make it through all the As. But I did manage to read all of these:

A little heavy on the male hero, but that was the times!

Back to Old Testament prophets.  Amos, Hosea, Micah, Obadiah, Haggai, Habakkuk. Believe me you don’t want to be these people.

They were weird, boring, and pretty much friendless. They were obsessed, driven, and ridiculed. I was constantly worried that God might call me to be a prophet and I’d end up even worse off than being the middle school oddball I already was.

But lately I’ve been wondering: Who will stand up to the powerful? Who will speak truth to bullies? Who is going to risk their reputation to defend the poor? Basically a prophet, someone with nothing else to lose, someone who feels a divine calling to go against the grain. Someone with a social media death wish, who doesn’t mind being ostracized, twitter-fried. Ezekiel would never have fit in in the suburbs.

Definitely the whole idea of a prophet brings up a lot of questions. Such as who gets to determine what’s right and what’s wrong and who holds the yardstick for measuring up? It is such a thin line between the hypocrite and the one calling someone else a hypocrite. Setting all this aside, I look forward to the next few years and seeing who decides to go against the flow and logjam the rich and powerful. Is there a prophet?
  Circa 1360 Illustrationin Speculum Humanae Salvationis  Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt,  This prophet's death by sawing is detailed in the 3rd century .

Friday, August 4, 2017

Paterson, the movie

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Movie Review

William Carlos Williams’ work was about capturing a moment. There are times when his work reminds me of Walt Whitman in its laudatory celebration, for example, of Paterson, NJ. (I know New Jersey, really.) And, at other times, his poems seem a lot like the New York School. He was a contemporary of Frank O’Hara, though much of his work pre-dates the NYS. Nevertheless, he was influential in his simplicity and taking a snapshot of everyday life and holding it up. It is what it is=a wheelbarrow, but it is also grander than that=it’s red, the chickens are white. What isn’t mentioned is that it is a clear crisp morning, the kind where you feel alive. Glad of that particular moment.

In the movie Paterson, Adam Driver, is a bus driver named Paterson. Is there some synchronicity here? He observes. Through his lens we see:
A glass
A mailbox askew
Series of twins

He sees patterns in Paterson.

Is it all black and white? (His wife’s favorite.)

He is also distracted—as if everyday life is intruding upon his art—or vice versa. Driving a bus, keeping to a schedule, a specific loop could easily be boring if it weren’t were for all the interesting people, overheard conversations, if there wasn’t so much poetry in the ordinary. It’s remarkable! Even the ubiquitous falls that the tourists come to see and celebrate.

Life is more than a confusion of a trillion cells.

Ron Padgett a second generation poet of the New York School was tapped to write the poems used throughout the film. From The New York Times:
Mr. Padgett, 74, who wrote three poems and provided four old ones for the movie’s main character, said the words flowed easily. “I realized I’ve been writing poems as one character or another for more than 50 years,” he said. He lives with his wife, Patricia Padgett, in the same railroad flat he found in 1967 and promised would be their home for no more than one year.
He also makes his wife coffee every morning. In the pics accompanying the interview he looks older, much older than William Carlos Williams when he died. Older than most of his friends whom he’s survived. At a certain point we get a quick glimpse of Lunch Hour Poems by Frank O’Hara by the driver’s, Paterson’s lunchbox.

This is not a big movie nor is it epic, fast-paced, action-filled. It is about ordinary people living ordinary lives. Nothing happens. Just like a poem. 
Ron Padgett is in the middle

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

War & Turpentine, book reivew

War & Turpentine
Stefan Hertmans, translated by David McKay
Book review

War & Turpentine is an autobiographical novel based upon the experiences of the author’s grandfather during World War I. Maybe.

There are indeed some facts.

The author’s grandfather, born in 1891, died in 1981. “It was as if his life,” Mr. Hertmans writes, “were no more than two digits playing leapfrog.” Urbain, an amateur painter most of his life, left behind his wartime journals.

Beyond this, Hertmans dives into his grandfather’s world, bringing us into the context and history of Flemish Belgium around the turn of the 20th century, an industrial age where children worked long hours at dangerous foundries incurring hideous injuries that often left them scarred physically and emotionally, or worse: dead. Urbain at every turn faced hardship and danger—and this was before he was drafted.

The book is divided into three parts. Setting the foundation of family history prior to the war, then a reinvention of the wartime diaries—what the NYTimes described as speculative writing—and the third act after the war, the rest of the story. Plus a meta view of the grandson (author) who adores Urbain and at the time is unable to grasp why he is who he is. It is only later the parts come together into a whole.

It has been a 100 years since WWI and many lists are featuring literature from this time period, titles are being revisited or reissued. W & T 1914 – 1918 contains an immediacy despite the fact that it is not Urbain’s exact words, it is his story nevertheless reinterpreted by 2 generations removed.

“The truth in life often lies buried in places we do not associate with authenticity. Life is more subtle, in this respect, than linear human mortality. It goes to work like a painter/copyist, using illusion to depict the truth.” And, here lies the essence of the novel/memoir/memorial—who cares if it is exact, the elements of what makes it real are all there.