Saturday, June 22, 2019

Missing Mid-Summer

I'm missing mid-summer in Sweden.

A year ago I spent one of the most magical evenings I can remember amongst friends and strangers in the hinterlands of Sweden dancing around a "pole" and yapping like a frog (I have no idea) in celebration of the longest day of the year.

Summer in Chicago can suck and it certainly isn't getting off to a good start: temps in the low 60s and drizzly rain. We've had weeks of rain now.

I really miss riding my bike way into what should be night, into what is normally sunset--yet the sun is high and bright. I miss cleaning up at the water's edge and sleeping in the cool dusk--falling asleep before the sun goes down. I long for long summer days in Sweden.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

When They See Us

When They See Us
Ava DuVernay, director, screenplay

When I say “Central Park 5” you know what I mean. When I cryptically mention “wilding”, you get it. Same thing if I say southside or westside. Code words for African Americans. POC, people of color.

In mid- to late-April there was a news story about groups of roving black kids downtown. A warm April night (a rarity this past spring, not even goin’ to get into the fact it’s June and we’ve barely broken into the 70s yet) add social media and the mayor and the police chief were calling an emergency. According to the Chicago Tribune:
What happened?
About 500 teenagers gathered downtown early Wednesday evening. Police were ready for them because of social media posts, strategically staging patrols and calling for transport vans.
The teenagers spread out across Millennium Park and near the Lake and Grand Red Line stops, passing packed restaurant patios.
Some teens got in fights among themselves. In one case, police and teenagers got into a tense confrontation near a Potbelly sandwich shop.
Police on bicycles surrounded the kids and tried to direct them to public transit. No one reported a crime. They were just out there. And, that was scary.

Now, back to Central Park on a warm evening in April, 1989.

And the night bunches of youth gathered, rough housed, some got stupid, some broke the law, but none of them raped a woman jogger. They were run out of the park before that incident happened. Nevertheless, they were targeted and 5 were falsely arrested, convicted, and served time.

The story of When They See Us. What they see are animals, roving gangs (indeed almost 100% of the names on a “gang watch list” recently under scrutiny were POC), assumptions are made, tourists/white folks get uncomfortable. Whatever happened to freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, the right to exist? Civil Rights?

In the end, 31 people were arrested, Chicago police said in a statement to the Tribune. They are facing charges ranging from disorderly mob action to resisting arrest, battery and CTA violations. No injuries were reported.

Thankfully, Civil Rights lawyers jumped all over this. This: the cops squeezing the teenagers onto the Red Line and Express-ing them to the southside.

The thin line between kids congregating and mob action seems so tenuous. A matter of interpretation. Or a difference in color. On Pride weekend there are so many groups assembling, carousing, the ordinance against public drinking is not enforced, thousands of tourists/out-of-towners crowd the parade route, the parks afterwards, etc. There are a few arrests, but mostly the police take a hands-off approach. Pride Weekend is good for the city vs its own residents assembling on a warm spring night is an issue.

Same thing goes for the Air & Water Show—no one is thinking, Shit! There are way too many white folks here in one place! Let’s not talk about what’s in their coolers.

I remember as a kid wanting to break free, cut loose, go “wilding.” Poets write about this, that feeling of wanting to fly, spring—jump so high, hang with friends, talk loud, and laugh like a crazy person. Except if you do it downtown while being black—expect to be expressed back to your turf.

DuVernay deserves an Emmy for both directing and writing the screenplay. A masterpiece that should be viewed by kids in high school for years to come.

The Central Park Five with series director Ava DuVernay
The real crime: wrongful conviction

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Friend, book review

The Friend
By Sigrid Nunez
Riverhead Books, 2018

Let me start this review on a completely random note: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about lament. Lament is such a brilliant expression for the times we live in. It beats giving up. Yet there are so many who have done just that—giving up. Giving up also takes many different forms. Such as turning off your Smartphone and living in a cabin off the grid. I know people who are doing just that: isolating. I can no longer reach them and when I do they do not want to engage.

It feels like a death.

Then there are those who have chosen death. Every day we hear of someone who has taken their life. News media tells us it is an epidemic.

A current of hopelessness permeates the air, to the point that sometimes I have to escape. Disengage. What a vicious cycle.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. One way I choose to escape is through long-distance cycling trips. In fact, I’m planning one right now. Even just the planning inspires me to keep going.

So on that melancholy note I launch into a review of a book that starts with a suicide. The unnamed narrator is grieving the loss of a colleague, friend, lover. And, as we learn, a pet owner.

She is left with her sorrow and by happenstance his Great Dane.

The narrator is herself a writer, thus she explores the territory of vocation, almost a higher calling, and the reality of what it takes to be a writer today. Nunez through prose examines the pitfalls many writers of her age encounter when faced with sensitivity readers, critiques of word choice that in light of political correctness fall into a red zone. Student/teacher conduct comes into focus, as well as the fact that she slept with her professor, her late friend. There is a quip at his memorial service: that he is now a dead white male.

The narrator has nowhere to turn for solace—except the hulking, slobbery 100-pound dog left to her. She lives in a 500 square-foot New York City apartment where dogs are not allowed. She is in danger of becoming homeless, losing her mind to grief, and on top of all this there’s writer block.

Her heart is so raw. All around her are questions. Event he answers are subjective, depending on where you stand in a situation. She cries, walks her dog, teaches creative writing at the university, comes home to walk the dog. Along the way she discovers that reading aloud Rilke’s  Letters to a Young Poet, soothes both her and her new friend. The title of the book, The Friend, refers to both the friend she lost and the one she gained through adoption. She bounces back and forth between addressing her dead former mentor and Apollo, the Great Dane.

I got a chance to meet Sigrid Nunez when I was on waitstaff at Breadloaf a million years ago and since then have read a few of her novels/memoirs/whatever you want to call it. You see, that the beauty of her work, is that it is not easily classified. She borrows from the world around her, other people’s lives, material from her past and melds them together into a hybrid novel that feels real—like looking out a window where you can’t tell if there is glass. I love this kind of work. Lily Tuck did the same thing with The Double Life of Liliane.

In a hybrid there are liberal doses of the “real” and invented parts. Poetic license. Where we as readers assume she is writing about herself, while she is aware of constructing a story that makes sense, which means playing with the facts. Often “real life” is too strange and convoluted to appear real. Subtext gives it a little more credibility.

If you enjoy feeling off-balance, reading memoirs, love dog stories, or want to read about the writer’s journey: read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.
The Friend: A Novel

Friday, June 14, 2019

Another blast from the past=The Blue Hour

The Blue hour put out a call for submissions and I responded. Ten minutes later in my inbox I got an acceptance. That was fast, I wrote. The editor simply said when we see it, we know it. Apparently it was just the right piece for that issue.

by Jane Hertenstein

Turning fifty is no big deal. It’s like forty-nine plus. Like size 1 is hardly different than a size 0. As if I knew. Those numbers are so far in my past as to be irrelevant. In fact I’ve never been a 1 or a 0. More to the fact, the closest I’ve ever come to a small was when I was a 11 junior—before the fashion charts got a make-over, adjusted for the new American woman, before an eleven was deemed a nine and a true eight became archaic.
Fifty is a state of mind. A half-way point—if one were to live to a hundred. Current statistics proclaim women will outlive men by seven years. The average woman today will probably make seventy-eight. In that case I am more than half-way there. Three quarters. Only I might have to do it alone.
Since the divorce. Since the death of my ex-husband. Since my man-friend moved to France and my daughter lives on an opposite coast from myself.
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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Reprising A Note in the Lobby

Here's another one from the archives:

“It has come to our attention that certain residents are not curbing their dog.”
I don’t have a dog, but I do have a parakeet. So I wondered if this message was for me. After affixing my galoshes and screwing on my thermal gloves, I pushed out through the revolving doors. What does it mean to curb?
At the web design startup where I work, Carrie had a fit because someone (again) ate something out of her plastic tub in the lunchroom fridge. Not that her rant referred to me.
I was curious, so I asked her what she was missing. She glared at me. More like a scowl. Not sure the difference — only that I brushed crumbs out of my mustache and scurried back to my cubicle.
When I returned home after a long day at the office — okay, not that long, only about ten hours, but it had been arduous — I found another note in the lobby of my building. I set down my bags and pushed my glasses further up on my nose until it nudged into that snug place.
“Please clean up after your pet.”
To finish reading go here:

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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Bringing back old favorites

Here is a link to a story that came out a few years ago:

In Her Garden
by Jane Hertenstein

When the regional rail line was extended north, Carol Ann and her husband Bob decided it was time to move out of the city and their second-floor walk-up and out to the unincorporated hinterlands where new suburbs were being planned. They were tired of thin walls and hearing their downstairs’ neighbors squabble. They wanted more space, room to spread out, especially as Carol Ann was pregnant with their second child.
She surveyed the back acreage of the lot-and-a-half upon which their new house sat. The surrounding land was open, for the time being. It was an area once impacted by the Ice Age. Receding glaciers had left fields of moraine and mostly flat treeless prairie. She imagined what it must have been like for the early settlers. A tabula rasa upon which they worked from sun up to sun down draining the sloughs and farming the land. She thought about how all things must eventually pass, erode away and decay. She was the last of her line, originally a LaMott. Her father was brother to five sisters and she, Carol Ann, was an only child. She’d already lost her name and some day she’d be gone too, buried she supposed under that same prairie. Her thoughts often strayed toward morbidity when she was pregnant, a consequence of carrying life.

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Memorial Day Backpacking Trip to Smoky Mountain National Park, 2019

Last week I went back to my roots: backpacking.

Also my parents used to live in Tennessee and I have spent a lot of time in the park. When they moved back to Ohio around 2007/8 I thought my time in the Smokies was finished. On top of that my hiking partner moved to Minnesota, so that seemed to seal the deal.

Until I got a hankering--and my feet fixed (see post). I contacted my friend to see if she was available and when the stars aligned I cooked up a plan. It's always good in the dead of winter to have a spring plan!

After picking her up at the airport we drove almost to the park and camped one night in the Daniel Boone National Forest (Holly Bay campground). I always find tent camping most exciting when there are bear boxes and Bear warnings. We did not spy any bears--we only heard birds in the mornings. We knew we were below the Mason Dixon line because it suddenly was no longer cold.

Upon arriving at the park we cycled the 11 mile loop of Cades Cove and trekked to the old farmhouses etc. After that we jumped back into the car and drove to Gregory Ridge Trailhead. By this time it was 6 pm and we had about 2 miles to hike. Though fairly level, we were dehydrated from the hot ride and had to scramble under fallen trees. The 2 miles paralleled a rushing stream. We set up camp at site 12 and quickly got a fire going and cooked up a supper. It was dark by the time we stowed food and "smelly" stuff up on the Bear truss high off the ground.

cycling Cades Cove, where there are still remnants of those who farmed and lived in Cove
The next day we hiked 4 - 5 miles pretty much all UP. We averaged about 1 miles an hour which I thought was bad until a group of guys told us it took them 1/2 mile per hour. When we got to Gregory Bald we were relieved: it was a lot cooler and we knew we were almost to our campsite, just down the hill to #13. We arrived early enough in the afternoon to set up a hammock and do some handwash. I'd forgotten how much you sweat when carrying a pack. I was drenched. We laid around and read and rested. That evening we went back to the Bald for some sunset pics.

The next day we hiked 4 miles out to a seasonal road that was still closed and then about 4 more miles to the trailhead parking and our car. We quickly got into the car AC and then drove to the OTHER side of the park to the Greenbrier district to hike up Porter's Creek trail to another campsite. By the time we arrived at #37 it was almost 7:30. Again the whole way up there was a rushing stream--yet at the campsite access to water was difficult. One would have to rappel down 20 feet, after doing a GI crawl under a huge fallen tree.

To say the least, we conserved water and made-do with what we'd hiked in with.

Now we were done with hiking. We headed out on route 321 and saw a sign HOMEMADE APPLE PIES and pulled into the Kyle Carver Orchard where there was a restaurant with hi-carb food--just what we needed. Before even placing our order they brought fritters and apple butter and apple cider in cups to the table. We ordered turkey and dressing with mashed potatoes and corn. It came with strawberry shortcake, biscuits, and a drink. Let me tell you!!!

We were a wreck and looked it. I went into the bathroom to freshen up after ordering to find dirt and bug carcasses in the creases of my neck. Sheesh!

Now I feel ready for more hikes--maybe in cooler climates.
on the trail, blooms

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Grieving, part of the writing process

This will be a very personal post. When we write, even fiction, we are revealing a little part of ourselves. Indeed, this may be why I write: to crack open the soul.

So then . . . after I've done my part, written and cracked, ached and revised, what next?

I'm not a hobbyist, so I put it out there--for the world to read. Or at least I hope so.

I send out my flashes and short stories and essays and generally after a lot of coming and going and wrestling, they are published. The novels take much, much longer. If I can't get an agent for the work then I try for smaller presses which are still reading manuscripts. Sometimes I go the self-publish route. Either way eventually these also get published.

After all this then I help market and publicize the work. I begin to intentionally engage with readers. And, this is where I have hit the wall.

I can't make people read my book, just like you can lead a horse to water but can't make them drink. I asked friends to read the novel either in digital form or buy (on Amazon these are VERIFIED) and write reviews. I've asked friends to request my book at the library. There are so many small things we can do for our author friends that have very real meaning.

Just like how a farmer plans during the winter, plants in the still cold spring, sometimes into hard ground, the fruit eventually comes and you hope to share it with others. That they will EAT what you've worked hard to grow.

My grieving process has been this: That people I thought would read my work simply have not.

I've had to work through this disappointment. Partly I blame myself for having such expectations--but they only made sense! Folks have been interested in me as a person and a writer. They have sometimes asked how it's going--so I assumed that when Cloud of Witnesses came out that they would blurb, review, or just read it. Give me a thumbs up.

Not to say I haven't had people write to me personally and tell me that they enjoyed the book. They have. One woman wrote to me and we met for coffee recently. I can't tell you what an impact it had on my psyche when she said your book made my day (in so many words). This was really like honey to me.

Which made me realize how many times I'd read a book that changed me or made me realize what a small world or big life is out there. That there is always more and at the same time we are all the same. Where I feel "one" with the author or the story resonates with me. Every now and then a book becomes a signpost in my life, a place to mark where I stand and that I can go back to to revisit that moment in my life. And, I never once wrote the author.

So I'm guilty also.

Nevertheless, the reality of this, the let down after publication is something I've been grappling with. I've had to grieve what I thought might happen and reconcile that with what actually happened. That it bloomed, came to fruition and some people ate and some did not.

Image result for end of a dream
It doesn't mean the book or story died, only my dreams for it.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Community Conversation

We went to a Community Conversation last night at Uplift High School where the neighborhood of Uptown were invited to attend an area-wide conversation about race and faith. It wasn’t very well attended. But the folks that were there were engaged. The panel consisted of staff from Kuumba Lynx a performance hiphop education group operating within Uplift High School, Dr. David Stovall of University of Illinois/Chicago, Daniel Hill, pastor of New Community Church in Bornzeville, and Tuyvet Ngo of the Illinois Vietnamese Association. They brought their deep background and experience in the community to the table.

As they were talking about crossing cultural boundaries I was reminded of a time many years ago now. I’m sure my daughter won’t mind me telling this story. (Hahaha, she’ll totally mind.) We told her if she met a certain goal for summer reading we’d reward her with a visit to a special restaurant. As one might guess, she totally blew away that goal plus. We took her to Macarthur’s a soul food place on the West Side.

*Fried catfish
*Corn muffins
*peach cobbler
*Bread pudding

You get the idea. And, oh yeah, mac and cheese.

We drove out there and went in and ordered. I noticed she wasn’t very excited or talking much. Maybe she was overwhelmed by the food. Finally she whispered to me. “We’re the only white people here.”

I looked around. Everyone around us was eating, and was black.

Suddenly I realized that this was much more than a reward for reading, it was a teaching moment. It was an opportunity for her to feel uncomfortable, part of a minority, a bit of an outsider. A lot like how certain populations feel amongst white people—out-numbered.

I couldn’t fix her discomfort. I only knew that this was life and she needed to experience it. What I did do was make sure she tried the peach cobbler and took home some corn muffins for later.

She’s grown up in a diverse neighborhood, within a diverse community, but it was important for her to feel that moment, what it’s like to not be top dog. Since then she has traveled. As a high school graduate she went to southern Italy where she was the only blonde for miles around—and very few people spoke English. She’s had to traverse all kinds of communities and be the outsider. She’s had to make inroads and bridge cultural gaps. Make a way when there seems to be no way and a common language is not possible.

We were lucky with the Community Conversation—most of us were on the same page: Let’s find a way to unite and work on issues.

Uptown Church & Uplift Community High School Community Conversations

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Benefits of Writing Small

As a writing discipline Flash can be very useful. In this day and age of web content, many designers are looking for people for can write small and effectively.

I’ve been writing flash now for at least ten years. More and more of the pieces accepted for publication are 3,000 words or less—some as short as 50 words. I believe all writers need to be trained in the art of flash.

Much like in archery—you aim for the bull’s eye and then move a degree to the left or right of it, leaving the final analysis to the reader to hit the target. My job is to get you close, bring the context into view.

All writing is about perspective and a small piece can offer in a minimum amount of words something completely out of the box.

One thing I try to do with my writing is to take for instance something that just happened, actually happened to me that I’m thinking about. Then I add something else, and something else, and combine them into a story salad. I’m not sure where this thing is headed.

Recently I had a scare when I returned home from bootcamp and was putting my bike away in our building basement. Suddenly a stranger walked in. Hey I asked what are you doing here? He left, but later I thought that could have gone badly. The n for some reason I thought about the Challenger disaster, still mourning the astronauts who perished that day. Then I thought about how relationships change. I know, this is all so random. Then I put them all together in a 2,000-word story.

So what’s on your mind? Take a minute and write down the disparate stuff banging around inside your head and then construct a story using all those elements.
Image result for brain words

Monday, May 20, 2019

Google Brain Net

Does this sound like progress: Someday our brains will be able to upload. So that new manuscript or novel you’ve been thinking about will finally get written.

Advances in technology are moving toward just this. Already there is BrainNet which allows brain-to-brain communication for collaboration purposes. And, at this point in time, it is not a far step to imagine a device for the physically challenged where they can think a command and their chair steers them along. Perhaps in the future what we think can immediately be transmitted/translated onto a screen then sent via email or even telepathically.

Except I can envision a few small glitches. Who of us hasn’t gotten into trouble for inadvertently sending something out that goes viral in a bad way, that badly worded email to reply-all? Not everything we thing needs to be said, least of all put out there. I imagine many YouTube vloggers will one day cringe when they revisit earlier posts. Just like how political candidate\s wish to “take back” tweets from their college days.

As much as this might sound like an advancement—and, let’s face it, it will likely come to fruition—we might not be better off or more likely to produce the Great American Novel. I forsee some families breaking up, friendships ending. I had a friend who in the morning (not a good time for a lot of people) if caught off guard would likely tell you off in the elevator. I remember one time hearing her yell at someone who got on that they smelled. Yup, if you think it here, it will come out there, direct to print or audio.

There is so much wingding that flies through my brain, I’m glad no one knows what I’m thinking. As authors we should beware of certain technology.
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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.