Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Halloween, the finale

Day 4: Open the door, dammit. There are kids who need candy out there!

"Trick or treat
smell my feet,
give me something good to eat."

Monday, October 29, 2007

Halloween Continued

Day 3: Plan your costume.

My kids have always rolled their eyes at my suggestions for Halloween costumes.

"But what IS it?" they cry when I tell them they can go like a crazy library lady or a rail-riding hobo.

"That doesn't make sense. No one will know who I am. I'm not ANYBODY," they say as they put on a big plastic clown bow-tie, some polka-dot overalls, and face me ready to paint their cheeks with bright red circles.

"Yes, you are. You're somebody. See, you're HOSS. Hoss Cartwright. Just don't forget to puff out your chest real big and clench your fists. They'll get it."

And by the way, readers, I'm so going to use this picture to bribe the boys in a few years.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

More Halloween Days

Day 2: Get thee to a pumpkin patch

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Halloween Days

Day 1: Prepare your ofrenda.

I tagged along with one our museum program managers to the El Burrito Mercado in West St. Paul yesterday. She was on the search for items to include in the History Center's Dias de Los Muertos Celebracion (Day of the Dead celebration) planned for Sunday, October 28, 1 to 4 pm. The event includes a display of ofrendas designed by students from the Guadalupe Alternative Programs in St. Paul and a special ofrenda installation by artist Armando GutiƩrrez. GutiƩrrez will also lead visitors as they create their own unique ofrendas. Play "Day of the Dead Loteria," a Mexican-style bingo game, see a sugar skull-making demonstration, enjoy Mexican folkloric dancing with Los Alegres Bailadores, and hear traditional music performed by Pedro Torres and his eight-piece mariachi group Flor y Canto.

The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holday that remembers and honors friends and family who have died and is celebrated over two days, November 1 (All Saints Day) and November 2 (All Souls Day).

El Burrito Mercado this year has set up an ofrenda in the front of their market and our manager Wendy, along with managers from the market, taught me about the altar.

I was born right across the border from Juarez, Mexico, in El Paso, Texas, and I worked with and lived near Mexican migrants when I was a teen, so I have some of that Mexican heritage with me. My parents live in the Rio Grande Valley in the winter months and right next to the airport I fly into is a huge cemetery with large-scale Stations of the Cross, and in preparation for the Day of the Dead many of the Mexican Americans will decorate all the railings and fencing and headstones with large, brightly colored plastic flowers. And then many take their lunches to the cemetery and have large family picnics there all day, sitting among the tombstones, eating tamales and drinking Pepsi Colas.

The Burrito Mercado ofrenda included a large tray filled with all the good things that go into traditional Mexican cooking (the pic above isn't from the Mercado but is a good example of a typical ofrenda):

a bowl of dry rice
dried chilis
some bay leaves
a cactus fruit (or tuna verde)
some tomatillos
cloves and sesame seeds in small dishes
an onion and a garlic

and then scattered around the big tray are sugar and wax candy skulls and papier-mache skeletons, and a few of the favorite things a loved one might have enjoyed, in this case, chocolate and cigarettes and a deck of cards.

(An artist's ofrenda, from http://www.storyboardtoys.com/)

I brought all my wares home, pulled out my big yellow pottery bowl, and set up my little ofrenda. We gringos aren't big on home altars unless it involves Jesus or scrapbooking. But I think this is just right. My departed Papa liked war movies and unfiltered cigarettes and my Grandma liked Grain Belt beer. My father-in-law liked sweets and my dear cousins each liked sushi and Coke. So I'm off to Walgreens and the liquor store now for my all-purpose remembrance. I hope my son doesn't get the idea I'm setting out all these items for a teen fest Saturday night sleepover.

Friday, October 26, 2007

moonlit writing

I'm going to the big to-do over at the Loft tonight. I hear the Erdrich sisters are wearing evening gowns. I have nothing appropriately glamorous in my closet but I am full of the moonlit spirit and a writer's heart. I should be out shopping for a pashima wrap or a sparkly clutch but instead I'm conjuring up writerly words to prepare myself .

Writer Dorothy Gallagher, who has had a life full of calamities--an ex-husband who carried brass knuckles, the psychiatrist who seduced her, her current husband's total paralysis--says this:

“Truly, life is just one damn thing after another. The writer’s business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story.”

And this full-moon poem by Dylan Thomas, which is even better read aloud:

In My Craft or Sullen Art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms, I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Year Online

A year ago, on my birthday, I sat at Frost and composed my first blog entry. A Luddite at work had that morning sent me a link to his new blog. Coleman has a blog? I stopped by his office and expressed my astonishment that he, of all people, had started a blog. In his sardonic way, he told me, "I realized that there are at least a million people out there who have blogs. If any dummy can do it than I ought to be able to start one."

I looked up his site and then I clicked on a few more, and by the time I bought myself a bowl of soup and a glass of wine for that birthday lunch, I had made my own plans. I thought it would be good for me professionally (I could learn about RSS feeds and html coding and posting videos). But I'd been wanting to write more and here was a way to stay committed to a more regular writing practice. That I could give to myself.

And then I just started writing. I've always carried a journal with me and there have always been days when I've composed essays and poems and short stories in response--to the day's news, to my mom's phone call, to my children's bedtime intimacies. I keep these bits and pieces in paper journals stuffed into desk drawers and under beds and in closet boxes near my shoes. My goal this year is to bring them back together for some revision and addition, for making them into something more, and finally submitting them, somewhere.

I still keep a handwritten journal but now I have a year of writing here at my fingertips. A year and over 200 posts. I've met new people, read lots of good stories, been inspired by great photography, and heard a lot of terrific responses, either in a post comment, or by e-mail or phone from friends who read but don't like to comment. Thanks for that.

I might waste a little more work time by all my online reading, but I've been richer for it. I like the voices in blogs. They are un-branded (usually) and seem to come straight out of that writer's curiosity and imagination. The content doesn't seem manipulated in that "what will readers want" kind of way that often really is code for "what do we want readers to want." Some blogs have a strong taxonomy where things are categorized for easy viewing, like here. Some blogs are often completely random, clearly cut from the stuff of life--like a good conversation with a friend over wine, as in this post.

One of my favorite blogs is Paper Cuts, a blog about "books and other printed matter" by Dwight Garner. His posts have inspired me as an editor, including this one on working-class critics. I'm reading my way now through more working-class stories and novels and collections because, more than ever, this IS a divided America and I want to do my part to break the class system in publishing.

And then there's Sassmaster, who I think is hilarious and also kind enough to share my passion for the chorizo and egg torta at Manny's Tortas. I remember thinking I'd like to know the Sass after reading this. She makes me realize how lucky I am to have my mom here and now. And it also brought to mind: Love memory. I want to plant lots of them.

I've had a chance to reconnect with an old friend through her posts at Juliliquoy. And to keep up with her son--and now daughter--though I've never met the two. My own kids are older now so what joy it is to read the Da Schmoo, a classic kid if you ask me.

When this writer took the summer off from his blog, I actually had some Drama Mater withdrawals. He's a fine writer and a generous soul and I often look at St. Paul through his eyes. Many of my favorite posts are gone, now that he has started the new Methods of Escape, but here's an example of a line that resonates, one he wrote about walking down Selby Avenue toward the Cathedral: "Odd how one can feel alone at a moment like this; by which I don't mean lonely, but as if this whole thing had been staged simply for you."

I watch "What Not to Wear," but I've been getting my best fashion tips from this dude: The Sartorialist. Nearly every day I get to absorb a little street fashion. Without the preaching and screeching. Just people looking good. I went out to get a few vintage cardigans after seeing this lovely shot.

And speaking of a lovely daily treat. I used to buy a handmade caramel for 50 cents every day after lunch. And then I started clicking on From a Farther Room and that seemed enough to satisfy my cravings. I loved this shot so much I bought it from the photographer/writer, Michael Hartford.

My kids have been hounding me for a dog. They haven't succeeded but this post from Dooce 'bout started me swooning for a mutt of my own.

So you see, it's been a rich year. Not to mention all the events in my life, which, if you've been reading, you know all about. Sunrise, sunset. Another year. Thanks to you all for making it a year to remember.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The opposite of earnest Tuesday

A friend sent me an e-card called "Sarcastic Wednesday," an animated bit that is a mix of The Simpson's and The Office. Here are a few of my contributions to the celebration, though the only thing Pilgrim-ish about them is this perfect, strutting wild turkey, found strolling along a sidewalk in Brookline, Massachussets. Really what is more sarcastic than that? (copyright Mark Wilson, AP).

Alarming reports abound about the increasingly high cost of college tuition, which is now outpacing inflation by a wider margin than ever before. How happy I was, then, to receive a special "For Parents" newsletter with this breaking news:

Annual Cereal Survey
Each year University Dining Services surveys residence hall students to find out which 12 cereals are the students' favorites, and the top vote-getters are served at all Residence Hall Dining Centers. The winner in the Chocolate Cereal category this year is Reese's Puffs; No. 1 in the Sugared Cereal category is Honey Nut Cheerios, and the favorite in the Health Cereal category is Frosted Mini Wheats. Other top vote-getters (in alphabetical order) are Captain Crunch, Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Kashi Heart to Heart, Lucky Charms, Rice Krispies, and Special K with Red Berries.
We seem lucky here in the Twin Cities, what with fires raging in California, drought in Georgia, and the always lurking threat of hurricanes in the Southeast. Plus, we've got celebrity exposes to mock, too, like Garrison Keillor's lovestruck stalker and Larry Craig's escapades. From Overheard in Minneapolis:

20-something man to his 20-something female companion after emerging from the bathroom: Wow! That's nice, clean, and relatively senator-free.
--MSP Airport
Overheard by Infrequent Flyer.
And from the ever-literate TMZ.com, the news-breaking entertainment site, viewers comment on Keillor's plight. One writes: "Garrison Keillor has fans?" And another, "Do you think anyone on this site would actually listen to Public Radio?" And finally, alas, what's an accomplished writer/comedian/radio host/bookstore owner to do with this comment?

"Dude, with looks like that you should be thankful anyone wants to do you."

Monday, October 22, 2007

And all these last bits

I'm feeling a little Pilgrim-ish these days. It happens to me in the late fall. I don't mean exactly Plymouth Rock-ish (who likes a witch hunt anyway?)--although I did make this wondrous little frugal treat this weekend with my stale potato rolls:

Sweet Bread Pudding
from "The Minimalist; Pudding, Sweet and Not" by Mark Bittman

Time: 1 hour, largely unattended

4 tablespoons butter
6 cups white bread, cut or torn into 1-inch chunks (wide, inexpensive loaves, usually called "Italian bread," work best)
2 cups half-and-half
4 eggs
3/4 cup maple syrup or sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch salt

1. Butter an 8-inch baking dish, and add bread. Cut remaining butter into bits, and combine with all other ingredients; pour over bread. Submerge bread with weighted plate, and turn oven to 350 degrees.

2. When oven is hot, remove the plate and bake until pudding is just set, 30-40 minutes. Serve with or without whipped cream. (I served mine warm with unwhipped whipping cream. Yum.)


This yearning to go on a pilgrimage, or to retreat to some kind of temporary ascetism, is in my blood, I think. It's fall and the dewy richness of summer has faded. This season's changing is most distinct to me. Sure, everyone loves a new spring bud blossoming, but what do we do with all the fading and dying, the diminishing of light, the last bits of everything? I've been thinking of this phrase a lot lately, "If nothing else, I rise to the occasion." It is a good motto, a congenial one, and I'd say it's been one way I characterize myself. But fall makes me want to fade away on my own for awhile, not answer to anyone else for a spell.

Many years I go on retreat. My mother used to say, "Hell, I used to envy my Catholic friends. They always got away 'on retreat.' I coulda used a retreat like that now and then."

I've spent many a fall retreat at St. John's or St. Ben's or even nearby at the St. Paul Monastery. I taste a little of the monastic life as I sleep alone in a clean and simple bedroom and take my meals in silence among the sweet sisters or the hulking monks (or, as it turns out, the relocated pedophiles). Is it a bucking-up for winter, or, a taking stock at summer's end? Is it loneliness, or, the need to be alone? Is it emotional or physical? Is there any difference? It is a yearning I have yet to figure out.

I don't know if bread pudding helps. It IS minimalist: nothing more than dry bread mixed with milk and eggs. And it makes me feel a little like an Andrew Wyeth painting: me preparing my simple dish. A white apron, a few brown eggs, a hot rich custard more or less the same as that of the 18th century.

Redsox Dancefest

Monday Morning Report

Sorry, this will be quick! I was up late last night practicing my Papelbon stare-downs and dance moves. Figure it will be helpful once I start delivering all this editing to my authors.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

What does an editor do when she needs a break from editing? Why, she visits the shop around the corner . . .

See http://maudnewton.com/blog/?p=7997

Joel Turnipseed writes: "Two refugees from the Hungry Mind/Ruminator meltdown, Tom Bielenberg and Hans Weyandt, are the proprietors of Micawber’s (http://www.micawbers.com/). They manage to make a healthy living by running their small store like a fine wine shop. Conspicuously absent are not only the commonest airport trash, but the latest talk-radio bestsellers and even a fair number of the books you might look for after watching a tweedy guest improved out of his Birkenstocks by Stephen Colbert."

That's my plan for Sunday. How about you?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Another item I should have added to my weekend list is "Realized this: My son is now taller than me."

I made him stand behind me, heel-to-heel, in front of the full-length mirror. Taller.

Then I made him do it again in front of my husband, who did the horizontal karate chop across the tops of our heads to measure. Taller.

Seems just yesterday the kid looked like this (his tenth birthday, third from right):

Every picture was filled with a guffaw, a peace sign above a pal's head, a tongue out and crazy eyes, one hand under his tee-shirt to flap an armpit fart.

Now he's a teen and has streamlined his responses: "Yep, Nope, Huh?"

I'm taking a break from the blog for a week or so. Not because I'm depressed he's taller but because I have a boatload of manuscripts to work on. Many, many words to edit. 219,344 words to be exact.

A light edit might look like this:

But I remember reading about a famous New York editor who had celebrated his birthday at a three-star restaurant with all the authors he had helped to publish over the years. If I remember right, Toni Morrison was there. She told of the venerable editor's distinct style. He had only two editing marks, which he wrote judiciously out in the margins.




He penciled in the exclamation mark when he liked a passage. He inserted the question mark when he didn't. Morrison described that it was up to his authors to figure out how to fix it. She said it was maddening but that she always seemed to figure it out. And that in the end his methods were probably the best thing for her writing.

So I'm going to get in the thick of it next week, pencils sharpened and poised.

And to get through it all I'm streamlining the work. It's either





Yep. Nope. Huh?


Postseason: Go Cleveland!
Off-season: What are the Twins doing now?

1. Last we heard, Mauer was having a hernia check Oct. 10. Mysteriously quiet on Twins front. Although Twinkie Town tells us Mauer will continue to be:

Director and Spokesman-QuickSwingButFirstTakeThreePitchesNoMatterTheSituationOrTheCount

2. Punto goes back to yoga class.

3. Entrepeneur and McDancyPants Pat Neshek now sells tee-shirts to go along with his graphed 8 x 10s. See his sidearmstore.com. He's also, finally!, pleasing SoDak fans by visiting Beresford, SD, this Saturday. He says here, "This is for everyone in the past that has asked me to come to South Dakota to make an autograph apperance...I'm coming."

4. I can't tell if Gardy wishes for the days of Babe Ruth, or not. He says about this off-season: "That's old school, coming to Spring Training to get in shape, putting down the pack of cigarettes and saying, 'Let's go." . . . [N]owadays you just have to stay on top of it all year round.'"

4. On that note, Boof Bonser is being followed as closely as Kirstie Alley or that Valerie from "One Day at a time." The entire Twins organization wants "Bonser -- listed at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds -- to lose weight to improve his endurance on the mound. Bonser doesn't like to run, so [they've] developed workouts that appeal to Bonser, like spinning."

Punto on the mats, Bonser on the bike, Mauer in a crotch-wrap, working on his arm strength. We get the picture.

5. All the while, the buff Maple Leafer will be posing for pictures, making his appearance as a hockey goalie and a bruising grand slammer. (This might be the carrot-at-the-end-of-the-stick for Bonser: not a before/after shot in People magazine but a customized, animated fantasy role in the new 2K Sports game, "The Bigs." Check it out.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Monday Morning Report

Watched this:

Borrowed this:

Bought this:

Ate this:

Celebrated this:

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Saying Yes

Happy Anniversary, KW. Who says we've been married too long?


It’s about the blood
banging in the body,
and the brain
lolling in its bed
like a happy baby.
At your touch, the nerve,
that volatile spook tree,
vibrates. The lungs
take up their work
with a giddy vigor.
Tremors in the joints
and tympani,
dust storms
in the canister of sugar.
The coil of ribs
heats up, begins
to glow. Come

Poem: “Yes” by Catherine Doty, from Momentum © Cavan Kerry Press.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I Heart St. Paul

You know how you've had a hard week and it is Thursday and you still have to work the night event so you stop by your favorite place, and you have a bit of the appetizers and a nice glass of wine, then you go to the event and meet and greet people and act nice and give explanations and smile at all the books being sold (all the while hoping you haven't run your sheer jet black hose) and then you finally get to go home, you've been on your feet most all day, but you liked the warmth and camaraderie of the bar and the bartender is good and nice, so you wrap up the evening with a little glass of Laphroig and have an end-of-evening chat. And all is pretty good. And then, before you know it, it's Friday.

That was my night.

Thanks, Frost.

bragging rights

Did all of you get this cold snap? It's cold! My feet and hands are like ice as I sit here at home typing. Saturday it was 88 degrees and yesterday it was 48. Bemidji got about an inch of snow Tuesday.

Remember when we got all that snow last March? One huge snowfall and then another one right after it. The Twin Cities looked like a Dr. Seuss illustration, with thick bars and long licks of snow on everything: the hoods and roofs of cars, the back bumpers, the frames around the license plates, even the long skinny front antennaes.

The University of Minnesota women's rowing team did not let that heavy snow stop them from training. The team manager would go out on the river and break long swaths of ice for practice runs. He'd cut the ice all the way from the Gopher boathouse to down past the I-94 bridge, and the crew would climb into their 200-lb. plastic shells, place their stocking feet into the fixed footgear of an 8- or 4-boat, and grab onto these super-long oars, all the while balancing a boat in the icy and rocking waters of the Mississippi. Their coaches didn't allow them to wear gloves.

I've always been afraid of the mighty river's currents. I remember the warnings from Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer and I remember my own experiences swimming and waterskiing in the river near Winona. Locals will say, "That river can just suck you under." So I was always nervous to hear about my daughter, a novice rower, going out when the river looked especially turbulent.

So this day following the two big snowstorms and the daily cutting of ice along the length of the Mississippi, one of the Novice 8 boats goes out. All the rowers face the stern; they can't see where they're going. Only the coxwain can see their course--she faces the bow. She's hooked up to the cox box, a device that shows time, stroke rate, and stroke count and has an amplifier and speaker system along the length of the boat so all the rowers can hear her commands.

Here's what some college rowers say about taking direction from their coxwains:

"Inflection, tonal changes, and motivational speaking style really does fire me up a TON when we're pulling. The coxswain can 'drown out that voice in my head which starts to say, "stop, this hurts, it's not worth it, etc." at about 500 meters to go.' "

"...the change from calm to intense was clear, direct, and it was such a jarring and interesting change of tone, that it kept us from daydreaming and losing our focus. It kept us all on the same page."

"Let your voice change. A lot of coxswains think they need to sound gruff all the time, or yell all the time. Change your voice as the cadence or the excitement of the race builds. Reel yourself in sometimes and harshly whisper into the mic. It's not what you say; it's how you say it."

So the novice rowers are on the icy river path. I don't know. It seems to me like steering a canoe down a dangerous luge run. The heavy snow muffles most sound but the icy voice of the coxwain. Suddenly she says over the mic: "oh my god." Not screaming, just "oh my god." Then louder and louder in a crescendo of "Oh no. Oh no. Oh my god." And all the rowers, who can't see what's going on behind them and never dare turn to look themselves, are yelling back, "What? What? What is wrong?" all the while pulling those long ten-foot oars through the waters.

A gigantic lip of drifted snow from below the I-94 bridge had broken off from the underside and was falling through the sky towards their boat. "Iceberg straight ahead!" British accent optional. The big slab of snow and ice came crashing down right next to them and the icy water and chunks that sprayed out from it hurt their legs and arms and bare hands.

So it is only fitting that the tenacious Gopher women's rowing team went on to win their first Big 10 Championship last spring, beating mighty Ohio State and scoring the most points ever in Big Ten Women's Rowing history, and were honored at the Metrodome a few weeks ago. Nice work, women.

Taking Big Ten Honors (daughter second from bottom)

Gopher football-weary crowd cheers line of rowers (see long line of crew members in background, wearing black shirts)

Happy Day

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It Ain't Free and It Ain't Easy . . .

. . . but one of the best parts about raising teens is having their friends around.

My daughter's peace-loving gang

My son, in middle, with friends before the junior high dance. (Don't anybody mention Super Bad right now or he'll never get to go out again.)

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Fussy Tuesday

It's going to be one of those days. You know, we all oversleep, kid forgets the sack lunch you rushed to pack, you put too much conditioner on in the shower and now your hair looks a little bit like Johnny Depp's but without the hunk factor. Then the nice but inept guy at the coffee shop makes your tea weak and too sweet. If I had been wearing this shirt, I could have asked for a new cup of tea that actually has some tint to the water and I wouldn't even have to explain myself. And I could jot many, many, many comments in the margin of this tough manuscript I'm working on and never once stop to rationalize author's voice v. house style. I'd be able to sneak home before lunch, take off my shoes and place them neatly by the bed, crawl under the covers, tucking the hem of the sheet tightly under my chin, and hope when I wake up it will be a brighter day. (The shirt can be purchased here.)

Now that I think about it, maybe this tee-shirt wouldn't be the best thing to wear to bed, huh?

Well, if your day got off to a prickly start, maybe this new blonde joke will help (courtesy of my friend Sharon, who happens to be a very intelligent shade of blonde):

A blonde calls her boyfriend and says, "Please come over here and help me. I have a killer jigsaw puzzle, and I can't figure out how to get started."

Her boyfriend asks, "What is it supposed to be when it's finished?"

The blonde says, "According to the picture on the box, it's a rooster."

Her boyfriend decides to go over and help with the puzzle. She lets him in and shows him where she has the puzzle spread all over the table. He studies the pieces for a moment, then looks at the box, then turns to her and says, "First of all, no matter what we do, we're not going to be able to assemble these pieces into anything resembling a rooster." He takes her hand and says, "Second, I want you to relax. Let's have a nice cup of tea, and then ..." he said with a deep sigh, . .. . . . .. .

(scroll down)

"Let's put all the Corn Flakes back in the box."

Monday, October 08, 2007

Monday Morning Report

Cooking with the Stars
Star cooks, that is. You know, Martha Stewart, Mark Bittman, the Rombauer girls. Even though it was ninety degrees outside, I was IN THE MOOD. I closed up the windows, turned on the air conditioner, and jacked up that oven. I made Bittman's homemade pancakes with real maple syrup and Martha's chocolate cookies that looked like this:

Get the recipe here. (The photo comes from The Amateur Gourmet, too.)

And I checked in with the Rombauers' Joy of Cooking in search of good ways to use all this squash I have.

And then I made big pots of tea and brought plates of chocolate chip cookies to the cozy chair and sat down and read Bittman's How to Cook Everything. (I tried to practice the Okinawan principle of “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full--so I wouldn't eat all my goodies too fast--but I just couldn't do it.)

Boy, am I ready to show off now.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Friday, October 05, 2007

A different kind of Friday Night Lights (and Thursdays, too)

Of all the memories I have of my grandparents, none are of them dancing. But my mom and dad, they love to dance. (You may recall that great pic of my dad as a young teen dancer here.) See this charming vignette, "Friday Evening Accordian Jazz Dance Night, Milan," from The Sartorialist, a street fashion/photography blog by Scott Schuman. He writes,

"Understand, these were not a lot of 70 year olds, these were a lot of 17 year olds trapped in 70 year old bodies. I mean, i wish i could just say this to you because i will never be able to type or articulate in words what I saw. Their faces ... their joy ... their youth. It was people moving past the physical and living on the emotional. There was joy, there was fun, their every look, every flirt, every expectation you could [have seen] at a senior prom. Immediately I was struck by this gentleman in the top image. He wasn't so much dancing with this woman as he was speed walking, but he was there, he felt it, he was in the moment."

Well, we're Minnesota, not Milan. But you can see the same kind of grace and even a little Scandinavian flirting at the Social Ice Dances at Parade Ice Garden every Thursday night this fall. Take in an after-work drink somewhere near Loring Park, then head over to Parade (near the Walker Art Center) to enjoy the dancers waltz on ice. I love the old gents the best. (If you join in, your first session is free.) My grandma wouldn't have ever gone out there but she would have loved the scene.

(Photograph by Scott Schuman for The Sartorialist)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Warning: long post ahead

Home Away

And then I realized she was the house, the house in the ‘Ford, along the banks of the Rock River. She was the reason I remembered it.

Every month or so, I drove down to Mankato from St. Paul to visit Grandma at the Hillcrest Health Center. One summer I got to spend the weekend there, leaving the kids with my husband. She had wanted a chicken sandwich from Burger King in time for the nursing home’s lunch hour. I was late and on my way got a ticket for going fifty in a thirty-mile-per-hour zone. I tried to explain to the policewoman that I was rushing because I didn’t want my grandma to be stuck again with a dried-beef sandwich and broth soup with the rest of the residents.

When I walked into the solarium I saw my Grandma and said, “I brought you a $75 sandwich, Grandma. I got a ticket racing to get it for you in time.”

She said, “Well, it’s about time . . . I’m starved! I was sure you were coming so I didn’t take any lunch. But when it got past one, I thought you had forgotten.”

“I wouldn’t forget, Grandma. I’d never forget you,” I said.

I tried to see her as much as I could since she’d been transferred to the home. Three years is such a long time to spend in one room. One that wasn’t even hers alone; she’d had roommates off and on. Some just didn’t like her and asked to be moved. Others had died. My grandma died there, too; she was only in her early seventies.

I always thought she looked just like Barbara Stanwyck. Especially the way she turned in one ankle when she posed in front of the camera. When she was in her twenties, she posed like that in front of Tibbie’s, the famous restaurant she and my Papa owned in Indianford, Wisconsin. Papa was in the war back then and I thought she looked as good, even better, than all those posters of Betty Grable. When she mailed that picture over to Papa in Germany, he had his own pin-up for his tent. She kept that pose throughout her life, and in pictures Papa sent me he would write things like, “Pretty sharp-looking babe, eh?”

In the nursing home, she still had a little wave to her hair and we all tried to keep her nails manicured. Mom bought her velvet green pantsuits and matching big slippers that she could wear comfortably in her wheelchair. She liked to have a smoke in the solarium, even though by the end she never really smoked a whole one. I didn’t like sitting out there because everyone smoked and it was one big foggy cave, but the TV was usually on and it was easy to make the residents smile.

In 1991, the year the Twins won the World Series, about twenty minutes before game time the residents would start shuffling their wheelchairs into the solarium, their feet pulling their chairs with baby taps, tap-tapping their way in single file from all directions, like Boeings coming in patterns to land at the airport. They’d gently shuffle themselves into the big room, like they were all being pulled by some magnetic force, some life force they couldn’t resist. Grandma would snuff out her cigarette then and say, “Oh, I can’t stand the Twins. Let’s go back to my room.” She didn’t like to shuffle her own wheelchair. She liked to be pushed and loved to watch all the residents comment on her chauffeuring visitor: “Oh Marj, I see your granddaughter came down.” Or, “Is that good-looking man your son-in-law?”

I was an Air Force kid. I moved often and my family was an island among strangers, those strangers swapped with another circle of strangers every eighteen months or so. But I grew up loving my extended family dearly, hanging by the phone when my mother cackled with her two sisters, reading my Papa’s long letters quickly the minute they came in the mail, then rereading them over and over until I had all his stories in my mind. My Papa, my mother’s father, was the master storyteller of the family. Blonde, Irish, funny, sentimental, sociable. My mother inherited that gift, not just from her father, but from all the people in the village where she grew up. She tells stories of sitting up at the bar stool after the restaurant had closed, when everyone sat around talking and counting their tips. She tells stories of boating out on the Rock River with her dad. She tells stories of growing up in the house along that river. And in all these stories, her mother played big—bigger than life sometimes. I never knew where we would live from year to year, but I knew I could always count on hearing about Grandma, and it was like that was my home.

My first memory of visiting Grandma in that riverfront house was when my Dad was in Vietnam. My brother, Mom, and I had taken the train up from Kansas City to spend a few weeks with all the family. Mom and I slept up in the second-floor bedroom, the one she and her sisters had slept in all those years growing up. It had a shed dormer and lots of angles and windows and overlooked the back lawn. The bats would come in through the attic on summer nights like that one and I woke up in the middle of the night with my mom yelling and swinging pillows in the air. She told me to get under the bed, that a whole load of bats had gotten into the room. My papa had heard all the noise and came up and, by then, my mom was throwing the pillows at the bats. And then Grandma came out to the bottom of the stairs. My brother woke up, too. I saw from under the bed that Grandma was buck naked. I mean buck naked. She had about a 40D bust and a slim waist even after the kids, and when my brother raced out to the hall to see if maybe the war had slipped over to Wisconsin from Saigon because we were all spooked during that time when Dad was away and because the racket had gotten so loud, all he could do was go ghostly white and look straight at my Grandma’s big breasts and say in one of those loud and raspy whispers, “Grandma. GRANDMA.”

I have a picture of myself during that time. I’m in a white cotton nightgown with lace eyelet trim, floor length, and I’m sitting on the window bench in Grandma’s dining room. She loved Lucy Ball and on one show Lucy and Ricky bought a country house and Lucy had filled it, room to room, with early American furniture. So Grandma did the same thing. It looked great in her country house. Finally. She had worked so hard trying to decorate that house. Once she bought a modern sectional couch with a matching upholstered ottoman, all sixties modern and boxy. But that didn’t satisfy her. Then she hired a man from the village to come in to hang plaid wallpaper in the kitchen. She wanted the ceiling to be plaid—and all the insets in the wood cabinets to be plaid, too. When the job was about over the handyman she had hired was at the tavern talking to my papa, who was bartending that night. The man said, “Floyd, I like you, and I like your bar, and I even like your wife. But never, never, will I do another job for that broad again. Never.” She had hounded him with every move, him trying to match all those plaids, and all the walls and cabinets weren’t square, and she bent over him hounding the whole time.

It was about a year later from that visit that my Grandma knew she had to save Papa. Papa had started drinking heavily when he got back from the war, forever haunted by all he had seen. He had survived the Battle of the Bulge, but it never left him. Once someone came into the tavern and Papa had his back turned to the door and the customer, who thought he was being funny, made a big gunshot noise with an air rifle. Pop-pop. Papa hit the floor, flinging the towel and bar glass that were in his hands. When he realized it was just the guy joking, he jumped over the bar and threw the guy out for good, telling him he was a son-of-a-bitch for doing that to him.

His nerves got the best of him and he couldn’t sit still long enough even to go to a movie. His three girls had grown up and moved away and he just drank himself sick. Grandma came home to him one night and told him she had sold the house to a young couple, sold their shares in the restaurant, and had bought a Winnebago in Janesville. They were going out to California, to Los Angeles, near where one of my aunts had settled. My grandma was mad as hell and she was just pitching everything she could fit into that Winnebago: photographs and lamps and clothes. My papa called my mom in Kansas City and told her what was happening. “What am I going to do?” he said. My mom said, “Well, you better go with her, Papa. What other choice do you have?”

I have another picture of Grandma, this time she’s fifty-three and standing outside the Pacoima V.A. Hospital in Los Angeles. Mom tells me that this was the happiest she had ever seen Grandma. She had become a nurse’s assistant and worked first at the V.A. and then the city hospital. She loved taking care of the elderly men and helping to deliver babies. She bought her own Volkswagen and on her days off she sipped coffee on her new side porch with the bougainvillea growing up the trellises. Papa, healthier now, writes on the back of this picture: “They all like to have her shave them the men that is so they can lean their heads back.”

Back at the nursing home, I asked Grandma so many questions. What about the time my mom took the fishing boat out and the motor died and when they jumped out to pull it back up the river they came upon the dead body in the currents? Or how about the time all the river rats came up to the garage and when Papa went out to dig his garden, he dug up their nests and they started attacking him? Did he really burn down that garage? I would wish we could sit down in her old kitchen and she could tell me all about those days. She used to say, “Well, let’s just have a cigarette,” even if you were under age. And then she would go on. It was like coming home. Like being gone in a strange new world all the time, where everything is so unfamiliar that it seems either too sharp or just a soft blur, and then coming through that front porch with the swing attached to the ceiling and then through the front door to the big picture windows, and feeling so much relief. Everything was here, the river rushing past that sagging porch out back, the hens and chickens spilling over the side rocks, their thick shoots and runners sending out more shoots and offsets, all tender and connected by the mother leek. The one that started it all.

And even though we weren’t in her old kitchen, it felt good just the same to talk with her. She told me how she knows it was hard for me to move so much. But she was able to pick up and move back then and she said she knew just what she wanted to take with her. When I asked her what she missed most about the old days, she said, “I’ll tell you what I don’t miss. I don’t miss the gruel. I had that goddamn gruel every day of my life growing up. Couldn’t stand the stuff.” I laughed right out loud because I had expected her to be sentimental.

On another visit, we were sitting out in the solarium again, and I asked her too many questions. I remember feeling she would be gone soon. I remember I felt like I was already detaching from her and my questions sounded too much like a reporter’s. Like I was hearing all this stuff new for the first time and I was trying to get the story, but not getting it right. It was tedious to her, I’m sure. She leaned on her hand, her elbow up on the arm of her wheelchair. She was looking out the window and her body was very still. I asked, “What do you miss most right now? What could you have if you could have anything in the world?” I thought maybe she’d be funny again like last time and say chocolate cake or strong coffee or a decent actress to watch in the movies, these new ones couldn’t act their way out of grade school. The bones of her hands against her cheek were so fine, but strong and long, too, and her wrist was exposed where the velvet sleeve had slipped down to her elbow. I wanted to reach out and touch her. But she looked right over at me without any hesitation and said, “Papa. I miss Papa.”

Later, after the funeral, my husband and I drove over to Indianford and by the old house near the river. I told him about the fried chicken at Tibbie’s and how vacationers from Chicago would line up outside the door on a Saturday night. I told him about how my mom would pick strawberries lying on her stomach in the back of the pickup truck, her stained fingers reaching out carefully to the bushes while the truck moved slowly along the rows. I told him about how old Minnie used to sell us worms and rent us poles and a boat when my brother and I came to visit, her dock so torn and weathered you had to watch where you walked. He said, “I bet you wish you grew up here sometimes, don’t you?” I said I did in a way. He asked, “What do you miss most about the place?” “Grandma,” I said. “Grandma.”

on grandmothers

Do you know Rutu Modan? See her Mixed Emotions installment on her grandmother here. She is a clever and knowing writer and illustrator and, as a commenter writes, her stories are "true-in-tune."

And my own grandmother story, sans delightful drawings, to come later today.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Midnight rambles or writing stories

It's late. I'm home after a nearly perfect Sapphire dirty martini at Frost. I passed a street sweeper on my way home. I tried to guess what the boys had been up to while I was out but I see only six knives of various lengths along the side of the kitchen sink, nothing else. I hear both of them snoring from separate rooms. There is a story here. I've just got to find it.

"The American short story is alive and well," says Stephen King (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/books/review/King2-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin). He writes about his task as editor of the Best American Short Story, 2007, and he has a funny story himself of having to crouch at his local bookstore to get at the bottom shelf holding all the literary magazines. The top, eye-level shelves were reserved for People, and US Weekly, and Oprah at Home. I know that feeling. I remember crouching and browsing in the semi-dark for all those short story anthologies at the old Hungry Mind bookstore. God, my knees hurt after that.

One Story, the chapbook that publishes one short story every three weeks, has a new campaign and website to save the short story: http://www.savetheshortstory.org/. They have a really nice list of mags and websites that publish short stories as well as a list of short story writers, although they foolishly left Flannery O'Connor off the list.

There are the short-shorts, too. Wired Magazine once invited all sorts of people to submit six-word stories, along the lines of Hemingway's well-known short-short: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Here are some of the results, many of them from the sci-fi crowd.

Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.
- William Shatner

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?
- Eileen Gunn

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.
- Margaret Atwood

It cost too much, staying human.
- Bruce Sterling

Easy. Just touch the match to
- Ursula K. Le Guin

So I've been playing around some with a few short stories. Here's a bit from one about my grandma. I've been missing her. Read here if you like or stay tuned for the full version Thursday. Or even better, try out one of your own.

"Back at the nursing home, I ask Grandma so many questions. What about the time my mom took the fishing boat out and the motor died and when they pulled it back through the river they came upon the dead man in the currents? Or how about the time all the river rats came up to the garage and when Papa went out to dig his garden, he dug up their nests and they started attacking him. Did he really burn down that garage? I wished we could sit down in her old kitchen and she could tell me all about those days. She would say, "Well let's just have a cigarette." And then she would go on. It was like coming home. Like being gone in a strange new world all the time, where everything is so unfamiliar that it is either too sharp or just a soft blur, and then coming through that front porch with the swing attached to the ceiling and then through the front door with the big square of glass, and feeling so much relief. Everything was here: the river rushing past the sagging stoop out back, the hens and chickens spilling over the side rocks, their thick shoots and runners sending out more shoots and offsets, all tender and connected by the mother leek. The one that started it all."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

You, too, can make a friend happy . . .

if you simply follow Assignment #63, "Make an Encouraging Banner," from the website Learning to Love You More, co-created by Miranda July and Harell Fletcher. (If you loved the link I posted last week, you'll love Learning to Love You More and July's complete website.)

Seems these banners were made just for me. . . .

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Monday Morning Report

I'm not saying it was a terrible weekend, but there are things I could have done differently:

1. I could have not bought the pak of Voortman sugar wafer cookies and eaten half of them during my night of pay-per-view.

2. I can quit now renting Hugh Grant movies. (And regarding Music and Lyrics, did Drew Barrymore look a little weird to you?)

3. I could have handled better the whole conversation with the teen kid about failing Performing Arts.

4. I should have left earlier for the football game at The Blake School so I wouldn't have had to compete for parking spots with all those Lexuses (Lexi?).

5. I shouldn't have left my husband. Alone, that is, with my white linen jacket and his box of Borax and the washing duties. Yep, when I saw it all shrunken and wrinkled on the clothes rack, its satin lining gaping out below the sleeves and waist, I thought about the Incredible Hulk after he explodes with all those steroids--and his clothes end up too tight, too short, too small.

6. After the rain-soaked game (us 22, them 6), trying to save a buck or two at Bread and Chocolate, I should not have ordered us kiddie hot chocolates, thereby getting half whipped cream and half lukewarm chocolate milk.

7. I could have waited to read the book review section until its proper Sunday release and then I wouldn't have had editor's remorse all Saturday night long. There is a mantra in football about tackling: HIT WRAP LIFT DRIVE [HIT him, WRAP your arms around him, LIFT him up, and DRIVE him into the ground]. Makes me cringe just to think about it. Sometimes the hits in this publishing business go that way, too.

And then I read news here about my friends and their new baby girl, just days old now. Everything seems to melt away with a gift of joy like this. Welcome to the world, little one.