Today's Topic

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Monday, 24 March 2014 18:34

"Country Girl,” by CSNY

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“Blinding paths through tables and glass,” the voices sang in the darkness in room 102 Slichter Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus in the earliest 1980s.

The two young women assigned to this room were tucked in their cot beds stoned. Side two of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s album “Déjà vu” played on the cheap stereo turntable that boasted Thruster speakers. The cheap stereo was mine; the album was my roommate’s. Every night we listened to one side of an album while we drifted off to troubled sleep. Ziggy Stardust, The Beatles ‘64-‘67, Decade. Both of us skipped more classes than we attended. Both of us probably suffered from undiagnosed, untreated depression and anxiety, and like the rest of our generation, we self-medicated.

We weren’t sad. Not in the least. Undisciplined, yes. Wildly creative, yes. We held weird-girl beach parties in our room in the dead of winter; we gained weight and wore lots of mascara. We sang Rolling Stones songs into hairbrushes. We colored and drew and made collages. It never occurred to either of to take an art class; those dots were not connectable back then. We both smoked menthol cigarettes. I imagine, like many freshmen in college, we had little idea what we wanted to be when we grew up, and even if we did, we had no idea how to get there.

“Too late to keep the change, too late to pay, no time to stay the same, no time to leave.” Both of us had already waited tables and would continue to do so off and on for many years to come.

Thirty years later that song still haunts me. It’s definitely a Neil Young song, not so much a CSNY song. My dad had that album in our house; on the cover a bunch of bearded, longhaired men stared at us through an antiqued image with deadpan expressions dressed as old timey Gold Rush prospectors. Back then singer/songwriters in particular were wistful for the Civil War era. Their album covers were haunted with these images (see The Eagles, The Band, James Taylor, The Byrds, From my dorm room, I only remembered hearing the first two songs on side one, “Carry On,” and “Teach Your Children” from girlhood.

By the time Neil Young wailed, “Country girl, I think you’re pretty,” I was twisted into inhabiting the song. Was it about picking up waitresses? Were both the waitresses and the singers feeling guilty, or did they want more from one another?

Back then I didn’t know that songs didn’t have to make sense; it was more about making the words fit well together. I didn’t know that many songs were the result of a variety of narratives and life experiences fused together. I didn’t know that no one song is ever about only one person no matter what you hear otherwise as a waitress being picked up by a troubadour.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014 21:23

The Importance of Pen Pals

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Growing up I had pen pals in Coral Gables, Florida, Washington, D.C., Peoria, Illinois, and in Boston. They were all kids that were either family friends from whom we’d moved away, or friends from vacations, or friends from summer jobs on Martha’s Vineyard. I wrote to my pen pals faithfully. I wrote to them with fervor. If they failed to respond in a timely manner, I sometimes wrote them another letter to nudge them along. The gift in this was that I logged on thousands of hours of writing time and was able to utilize that practice as a songwriter and as a writer.

Nowadays I work with high school students coaching them along with their college entrance essays. Not many (okay, not any) of them know how to write a scene, how to “show” instead of “tell.” Few know how to describe setting or write authentic sounding dialogue. Not many of them are comfortable telling a story about themselves that is not in some way a cliché or something they’ve been led to believe a college entrance admissions officer would like to hear. Many kids today have been so busy wracking up 4.0 grade-point-averages and sky high test scores -- all while training to be masterful athletes, philanthropists, and artists. It makes my head reel. In high school I worked at an ice cream parlor and sang in the choir every day in school, and I recall being disappointed that I had to go to college at the University of Wisconsin in my hometown of Madison. But I digress.

What if we created some sort of Pen Pal Project, a program in the schools, with a large sponsor like, say, Target, and urged our grade school kids to take on a pen pal? Their pen pal could be an older relative – I wrote regularly to my spinster Aunt Alice -- or a cousin in another town, or someone in another school out-of-state whose school was also involved in the Pen Pal Project. Sure, they now have email and facebook, but no one really stretches out and tells stories from every day life in via email.

There are a few waning life skills and one national treasure that could be saved through this proposed project; the craft of personal expository writing, the lost art of handwriting, and the U.S. postal service. Just a thought.

Monday, 03 March 2014 18:29

The Memoir MERMAID

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Up front I would like to say that the author, Eileen Cronin, is a friend of mine. I met her at a literary conference in New Orleans and we smoked numerous cigarettes together while watching a smattering of literary luminaries behave badly in a hotel bar. We were both unpublished authors at the time and we took to one another immediately.

Earlier in the day I noticed that Eileen walked with some stiffness, something I can relate to having never completely recovered my easy gait after a bout with M.S. in my twenties. I asked her why her gait was stilted and told her why mine is gimpy when I’m tired or nervous or break my two drink maximum policy.

She revealed double prosthetic calves and feet below her skirt. She was born that way. “Did your mom take thalidomide?” I asked. She gave me a sidelong glance and said, “It’s a long story.” I was all ears.

Now you can be too because her memoir MERMAID has been published by that hallowed literary publisher Scribner. MERMAID is not an uncomfortable read about growing up physically handicapped. Eileen grew up in an enormous Catholic family in Cincinnati. Eileen has the best literary Catholic family I’ve read about since ANGELA’S ASHES. She has the best literary mother character since THE LIAR’S CLUB. Eileen’s prose is pitch perfect, humorous, heart wrenching, and at times surprising. I don’t want to give it away or pepper you with examples. I just want to share my two thumbs way up for this compelling memoir.

If you are a lover, writer, teacher, or fan of the genre, add MERMAID to your reading list. I implore you.

  1. In which Anastasia Steele is a twenty-two-year-old virgin with no purported religious ties.

When we, the readers, meet Anastasia Steele, the heroine in the FIFTY SHADES series, she is a twenty-two-year-old about to graduate from college. She has never dated, nor has she ever experienced any type of sexual longing or lust. According to her, she just hasn’t been interested. Anastasia is a twenty-two-year-old virgin. Not impossible, but a most unlikely situation as there is no mention of any baggage in the form of organized religion or any other philosophical or moral belief systems. Seventeen is the average age that an American female loses her virginity.

It is repeated constantly that Anastasia lacks physical flaws and that every male with whom she has contact falls madly and hopelessly in love with her. Yet she is unmoved or unnoticing. Until! Mysterious and ultra good-looking twenty-eight-year old billionaire business magnate Christian Grey starts stalking her after a chance meeting during which she begrudgingly interviewed him for the school newspaper as a favor for her ailing roommate.

The kicker is that Anastasia is an English Lit. major obsessed with British novels in the vein of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters. I, dear reader, was an English Lit. major, and I, too, found great satisfaction escaping into other places and other times through immersion in these texts. I was also a complete romantic; my own unrequited love issues manifested themselves in the form of horn-dog slut behavior. Nearly every English Lit. major I have ever known has suffered from similar tendencies best described as sexual promiscuity. It comes with the territory.

Case in point, when I was an English major at the University of Wisconsin, during Shakespeare class, there was a couple, Paul and Amy, so beautiful and elegant and urban cool – she in a long taffeta tutu and cowboy boots, he with slicked back hair and loose-fitting second hand suits –that I could not take my eyes off them during class. In their side-by-side seats with pull-down desktops their hands were busy under the protective boards. Dusty sun filtered through the windows in the old fashioned classroom in Bascom Hall. Instead of taking notes while our verbose arrogant professor, deathly pale and boring, rambled on endlessly, they took turns laying their heads down on the desk top, heads cradled by folded arms, while the one manually sexually serviced the other. They were discreet enough that if you were not focused on them, you would be none the wiser. If you, like half of us in the room, were watching closely, you would shift in your seat whenever Paul or Amy experienced an orgasm, she by sighing daintily, he by audibly inhaling, holding his breath, and finally exhaling like a gasp.

So fevered by these exchanges was I that I had sexual relations with not one, but two members of that highly charged classroom. The first one, Willie, had me over to his rented house on Franklin Street to rehearse a scene from Macbeth that we chose to perform in lieu of a paper. Willie was an adorable scenester/jock combo platter from Iowa City and I was excited to be “studying” at his house because he had the foxiest flower child roommate, Lars, on whom I had an enormous crush. Lars was there clad in a stocking cap and long johns peeking out beneath cut off shorts and he hung out with us. For some reason, probably because I foolishly smoked their very strong pot for which I had a very low tolerance, I found myself in Willie’s bed in what would be a one-week affair that didn’t get off the ground. He was all wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am with little focus on the fair maiden beneath him. That tryst erased any chances I may have had with gentle Lars. The other guy from Shakespeare class, Guy, would become my on-again, off-again equally mixed-up, extremely non-monogamous boyfriend for the next couple of years, and though we looked all right together, he in a beret and pierced ear, I in my neon tights and vintage wardrobe, tried as we may have, we were no Paul and Amy.

Most English majors past and present that I have ever encountered --and there are many as I am now a creative writing instructor and there’s a lot of cross-over --are extremely interested in sex. Maybe it’s our escapist natures, our love of projection, escapism, and the weight of words, but, seriously, we’re as worked up as the wife of Bath. It was difficult for me to buy Anastasia Steele as a virgin English major who has nothing physically, socially, or morally blocking her young natural instincts unless she had something else, deeply hidden and never revealed, wrong with her. As my neighbor Deb, a reader of Books, wondered, “What the hell was wrong with her?”

Tuesday, 11 February 2014 19:03

Morningside After Dark

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On a sub-zero Monday night in January a neighborhood church basement is transformed into a warmly lit, tinfoil star decorated nightclub. Coffee and cocoa are donated from a nearby coffee shop, a baker creates delicacies in her home to bring down to the basement to share, members of the parish bustle about setting up tables, cups, lighting, and microphones. By 7:30 p.m. the little basement gym that once housed my teenage son’s nursery school is filled with well over 100 winter- weary adult bodies eager for a night of escape from the cold and the monotony that punctuates Minnesota winters.

A nationally known writer shares a precautionary tale about learning to lasso uncontainable enthusiasm, a neighbor sings of a men’s ski weekend titled “Sausage Party,” an Irish actor reads aloud the darkly funny tale of “Sassy, the Ugliest Dog in Tennessee” penned by a local comic/writer, four of Minneapolis’s most highly regarded musicians (and that’s saying a lot) perform an original song on guitar, accordion, bass, and snare, followed by a poet, followed by an Israeli chanteuse, then an acapella group called Goth Mother who sings a Smith’s song, followed by a real live Disney princess.

So far every time it’s magic.

I have a neighbor named Rebecca, a mother of four, who is a swirling ball of energy and light. She organizes fundraisers, local artists’ showcases, tea parties, literary events, community outreach; all things good. She is a force.

Sometime last year she managed to get our neighbor Jim and myself extracted from the sea of family, life, work, and busy to meet at a neighborhood soup haunt to create a neighborhood storytelling and music series we call Morningside After Dark. Like New York’s Moth Reading series we create a show around a theme like “snowed in,” “conversation hearts, “ “lucky or unlucky,” or “darkness and light.” For two winters running we have miraculously corralled the most stellar ragtag group of creatives from within the neighborhood and around the Twin Cities to volunteer their talents to possibly the most appreciative Minnesota audience I’ve ever experienced (and that’s saying a ton).

When I was a girl I spent countless summers atop the Podebradsky’s picnic table trying to force disinterested neighborhood kids to put on a show. As a young adult I channeled this energy into an indy rock band. The reward for the solitary hours I now spend writing is the opportunity to give readings every once in awhile. Morningside After Dark is the mixture of everything I love; busy yet generous artists, family people, and neighbors all gathering without an agenda or expectations, open and curious, to take in whatever folks of a particular bent have to offer. There are only two more shows this season. The talent we have lined up for February and March is dizzying. If you’re free, you should most definitely come down.

Monday, 03 February 2014 00:00

Morning Joe

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Most weekday mornings while I make coffee, prepare breakfast (i.e. lay out a cereal box and a bowl or toast a frozen waffle), and hound my teenage son to get out of the shower so he has time to choke down some nutrition before school, I tune in to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

I’m not sure exactly why. Joe drives me bananas with his smug telepathic messages to social conservatives. Mika bugs me when she mugs for the camera aghast at Joe’s preppie vitriol, especially now that she no longer interrupts to inject logic into his daily campaign speeches.

Which does not mean that I do not sometimes agree with Joe, nor do I eschew his taste in music. He wants gun control. He likes the Replacement’s. He’s sort of cute in that ”preppies are my weakness” kind of way. It’s a reasonably balanced show in terms of the other folks they invite into their early morning lair to discuss the news of the day. Mike Barnacle’s cool. So is Donny Deutsch. I must be emotionally mature as I plunge into middle age.

I agree with and admire Joe’s morning foil/fox Mika. She’s gorgeous; I think my 75-year-old dyed in the wool Democrat mother tries to have her hair done up like Mika’s in that short blondie swoop. I, once a political junkie, have grown to despise American politics. I can’t stomach it any more. The system is broken. Washington is a joke. I hope local politics takes advantage of this tremendous opportunity.

My son shuffles downstairs, barefoot -- it’s a -10 degrees below zero morning -- and flips the channel to Sports Center without asking, and the day begins.

Friday, 24 January 2014 00:00

The Writing vs. Online Shopping Problem

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Many are the days I would rather shop online than write. I have written so much in the past five-plus years that I’m unable to put to use. The mystery is eluding me and I know as a writing instructor that preaches this stuff that I have to be patient; it will reveal itself when it’s properly cooked. It’s been marinating forever; it may be over-tenderized. What if I’m a one-trick writer? Oh dear, the critic is loud today. Perusing the reams of unaffordable, yet breathtaking, boots on the Sundance site can take up a good half hour. I glance at the top right-hand corner of my computer screen and notice the time. Oops, gotta run; so much for today’s writing time.

It’s not just my writing time that is swallowed by looking at the pretty pictures of stuff that will not make me a happier person. It’s a go-to when I’m feeling stressed or lonely. Anthropologie, J Crew, oh the meaningless costly time we’ve spent together. Boden, why do I keep ordering things from you that I never wear because they don’t look good on me; they look great on your models? As a newly minted (ha!) woman of a certain age, am I supposed to be more sensible and turn my gaze to Garnet Hill? Nevah!

When I was an unsupervised girl with loads of unstructured time and no homework in the 1970s, my friends and I would go through every single page of the Sear’s or Penney’s catalogue. The game entailed that we each had to pick one thing from each page that we would like to have. It didn’t matter if we turned to the weirdly plastic men’s underwear pages or the small appliances pages. We were forming our boxers versus briefs opinions and brand name preferences. Boxers. Sunbeam. This made-up game has probably kept our nation’s economy chugging along, this want, desire, and need to have stuff, more and better stuff has had me by the throat since childhood.

This is a huge topic that will have to be re-visited, but duty calls. I did not proceed to check-out today. One day at a time. One word at a time.

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