Where I write

Where I write

August 9, 2016

Story Time

   In the old days, before we spent most of our time on cell phones, or staring at a computer screen, my parents would sit with my grandma and Great Aunt Louise at my grandma's kitchen table and tell stories about Chicago. They would tell story after story about their beloved city, from its street cars to its weather, to its politics. Chicago was entwined with who each of them was, for they had each played a role, however small, in what the city had become. 

    I was too young to pay much attention, but I would pause from playing in my grandma's rambling, clapboard house in Chicago, long enough to listen and wonder why these stories meant so much to my family. Playing store with the cans in my grandma's pantry seemed way more fun. I enjoyed pretending I was a cashier at a grocery store. 

   Now, of course, I wish I  had recorded the personal history of the city where I was born. If only to hear the voices of my loved ones who had died, but it's too late. And I don't want to be a cashier. Still, listening to those stories instilled in me the love of story-telling which perhaps made me a writer.  Even more so, I learned the importance of sharing our stories because through stories we grow closer. One doesn't need to be a writer to appreciate story telling. 

     On Friday I went to an estate sale and bought these bunny book ends. (Those are the books where my essays and stories are published. I hope it motivates me to write more, and make those bunnies really work at keeping the books upright.) Anyway, at the estate sale I noticed a lot of bunny items. There were bunny china figurines, bunny pictures, bunny kitchen towels and enough bunnies for a lifetime of Easter celebrations. I mentioned to the middle-aged man who was taking my money for items purchased, that the person who had lived there must have loved bunnies. Oh yes, he said. He looked please to tell the story about the woman who died. He said she didn't have dogs, or cats, or birds. She always had a bunny. One at a time. And she always named the bunny... Bunny. I was enchanted.

    "And," he said, warming to the subject. "She always had birthday parties for her bunnies." She was an elderly woman when she died, he said, but she had found a home for her last bunny.

   Before I left, I took another long look at the house, painted violet with  purple trim. The story he told me felt important because it was about love. For bunnies. And I realized if he had told me a different story, about how much money she had, or how popular she was, or what an important job she had, I would have shrugged and not cared.  It was her bunny story that I will remember. 
    My friend Jo Anna died last March from breast cancer at 58. I think about the stories she would tell about growing up in Buffalo, New York. Her mother would take her to the zoo every day. Even in the winter. Imagine that.  I won't remember, or care, if she had a big car or a big bank account. I will remember that when she tap danced she moved as if she was on a  Broadway stage. She did her best. Her house with the claw-foot tub, and all her jewelry,  belongs to someone else now. All that remains are the stories people remember about her. 

   I know material things are important for survival, but how often at funerals do people share stories about how someone drove a Lexus or managed well his 401k? What people talk about is the stories, the funny times, the crazy moments, how someone touched our life. 

  Here's one about me. My first boyfriend was named Bruce Adams. He's that dapper little fellow just to the right of the photo of Fairview Elementary School. He was a year older than me and my neighbor. He was the first boy I ever kissed.  Our relationship didn't progress past the third grade, and the kiss was just on his cheeks, but I will always remember Brucie. That was my nickname for him. He wore sweaters and bow ties to school. 

    In then end, the stories are what remain. I feel happier knowing there was a woman who lived down the street from me who gave birthday parties for her bunnies. It's a great story. We all have great stories. We just need to tell them. 

July 12, 2016

The Right Stuff

     My friend Tracy sent me this photo of deviled eggs she made. The picture is blurry, but it's still possible to make out her failed attempt. Tracy makes fabulous deviled eggs, or at least she did until she took the advice of a friend who told she had been doing them wrong. So she did what a friend suggested and made them another  way. Instead of her usual delicious looking, and tasting, deviled eggs she got this mess of yellow and white. Tracy's going back to trusting her own tried and true methods. 

     Why did she listen to her friend, when she already knew what worked for her? For the same reason we all question ourselves. We think we aren't doing it right.  It's part of our endless quest to be perfect. To find the right path to success or love or happiness, or even making deviled eggs even better.  They were fine to begin with.  Her friend's right way, turned out to be Tracy's wrong way. 

    In tap dance I want to do the steps the "right way." Yes tap steps are suppose to be done in a certain manner, but my tapping will never look like the teacher's tapping. Comparison makes me cringe. I try to remember I am different. First, my size 10 wide feet are way bigger than my teacher's in her snazzy little shoes. If I keep feeling as if there is something wrong about the way I tap dance because I don't look exactly like the teacher, I will be in perpetual frustration. Likely this is the reason many people come to a tap class once or twice and give up feeling they just don't look right. Especially when dance rooms are full of mirrors. Also, I can not do this dance step but it's fun to dream.

   Cooking or dance is like writing. Many a critique group I have participated in has included people who like to tell other people what is wrong about his or her writing. I'm sure in the early years, I did the same thing, act like a writing know-it-all.

  I avoid critique groups now as I've moved beyond searching for someone who knows exactly how I should be writing. There is no one but myself who knows just the right words I should be using in just the right manner.  I must confess though a spiffy  editor would always be nice to have. Missed words, wrong punctuation and questions about content is always appreciated. But not someone who wants to tell me the right way to write.  
    At the retreat center in Oregon, I found this library. I loved how messy the books were on the shelves.   Neat book shelves always look to me as if the books are just there for show. Each book  was written by someone who pushed beyond the bounds of worrying whether they were doing something correctly, or changing what they were doing because someone else might have the secret to success. The writers  took risks, made mistakes and kept writing. They did it their way. Not easy in this word of conformity.  Standing out is not always prized and doing something "my way" can be faulted.
   Which makes me think of Frankie.  I always liked how Sinatra sang My Way. And it was a big hit likely because he sang it with conviction and style. Oh he did have style. So don't let anyone dim the light inside of you that needs to shine. Trust yourself to be creative, to live life, the only way possible. Your way.  


June 8, 2016

The Good Old Days of the Restaurant Business

     I was watching a black and white comedy sitcom from the early
1960s the other night after work. The dialogue was corny and the plot trite, though the living room set with the giant lamps, glass ash trays and low couches, reminded me of my childhood and that was fun. I was about to turn the channel, when one of the characters, an elderly uncle from "the old country" talked about sharing some goat cheese he brought over on the boat with him. The man and woman hosting the uncle were aghast. They exchanged embarrassed glances and looked ashamed. It was obvious they thought their uncle was out of touch with the modern times. 

   Now if the uncle had gotten as excited about this miracle of the 1960s, he would have been met with approval from his relatives. Velveeta cheese.
 Sure it always worried me why I didn't need to keep it refrigerated, but it lasted forever. Economical.  Easy to slice and melt. So creamy. Fast forward to 2016. I suspect people today hide the fact that they even buy the stuff, burying the Velveeta cheese beneath chunks of goat cheese in their shopping carts. It's so not cool. And it's equally not hip to say one does not like goat cheese. I don't like goat cheese. I am not hip. There I admitted it. 
   It's impossible to go to a resturant today and not find goat cheese on the menu. And there are other dining trends I don't find appealing. Kale doesn't interest me, and I don't like beets.  Every menu today includes the red, orange and, yes even purple, root vegetable. In one word. Yuck. 
   As a kid, beets were what my grandma liked on Thanksgiving. My mother put out a special bowl for her. Speaking of trendy,  I don't like the trend of uncomfortable chairs at restaurants. Today restaurants are furnished, as my English professor Dr. Haley once said about another professor, "with style over substance." Everything is metal. Who besides a masochist enjoys sitting on metal? 
      The other day my friend, Tracy, and I went out to eat. By the end of our meal my back was killing me. Her shoulder hurt, likely from the position of her back.  I don't have a back problem, but I felt as if I was going to suffer from one after our meal. Tracy and I love to gab, more than we like to write, but we didn't stick around long after finishing eating.  The chairs in restaurants have become like small torture devices, and maybe that's what restaurants want, to move people in and move them out.  No lingering.
    Now here's a place to linger. Trouble is you need a time machine back to 1970.  Call me ancient, but I like comfort. My bones appreciate softness. They rebel against hard metal. I could sleep in that deep, dark booth.  Even the plump bar stools look inviting. It looks quiet, too, a resturant  one could actually converse with a dinner companion. Booths are so not 2016. It's a shame.
    I have another question. Why, please, tell me why, people like open kitchens? What enjoyment is there in looking at  stainless steel appliances. Do people go to construction sights and watch workers dig holes? Do crowds visit hospitals to watch a surgeon remove a kidney?  I don't get it. And it's loud. I don't need clattering of dishes, flames shooting from pans, and conversations between chefs. It's intrusive. Unless I'm sitting in a friend's kitchen, as I sat one summer day in my friend Stella's kitchen and watched her roll out dough and make a blueberry lavender pie, I'm not interested. I don't need to watch people earn a living.  By the way, Stella is as gifted as making a pie as writing a poem.
    Yes. No kitchen in sight in this resturant. No televisions, either. A resturant manager said to me once that an open kitchen "creates drama." We get enough drama in the national news and in our lives.   It would take time to find the kitchen in this resturant, and that's fine with me if I never found the kitchen. I just want to eat the good food that it produced. Let the employees do their jobs without an audience. 
    One of my fellow servers got a job at a hip new resturant in town.  Everyone there has tattoos and piercings. He said this with pride. I don't need a server with a ring in her nose or tattoos of Chinese symbols on her arms to make a meal taste delicious.  My friend Gloria's mother was a server, and she wore a crisp black dress with nylons and white apron. Neat and clean. She didn't look as if she wanted to be a drummer in a rock band. I get it. Tattoos and piercings are popular, but knowing my server will have arms that have been colored with a tiny needle, does not inspire me to rush to try out a new resturant. 

   All of the above  makes me sound as if I'm a cranky old server. Maybe I am. I will end with a modern trend I really appreciate lest you think I'm totally stuck in 1977.
     Wine has really improved. In the old days we served just three types, Chablis, Burgundy or Rose. In carafes. It was cheap. And it tasted cheap. Now we have extensive wine lists. I drink wine that comes everywhere from the coast of California to the wilds of Australia. Oh and I like tofu. See. I'm not THAT old fashioned. But don't try to sell me on beets. Ain't happening. 

May 26, 2016

Memoir Writing 101

Ever want to write a memoir? Getting started can be the hardest part. There's so much to say and yet...where to begin? 

This is an advertisement for a home similar to the one I grew up with in a suburb of Chicago. Beside the yellowed paper, another clue that the ad wasn't in today's newspaper, is the $14,950 price tag for a three bedroom house on a half acre lot. Today, for that price, people could buy only the front porch. Or maybe just the porch steps. 

The floor plan of the house is simple, empty square boxes. Yet when I applied my memories to the lines signifying space, I saw my bedroom there in the back. And what do you know, there I am sitting in front of my mirrored dresser listening to Motown music on my pink and purple record player. I liked to pretend I was the fourth member of Diana Ross and the Supremes. As I sang off key and danced around my small room, I felt as if any moment Diana might telephone me and ask me to join her and the other girls on a concert tour.  Alas, I never got that call. 

 In the front bedroom, I saw  my little brother Billy in his bedroom with baseball cards splayed out around him. In the kitchen my mother wearing an apron prepared our meal, something with meat and potatoes.  Afterall, this was the Midwest and a meal without meat was like going outside in a blizzard without boots. Just wrong. 

My father was more of a shadowy figure. He was gone a lot at his job in Chicago so we could live, as the ad states, in our "miracle of a house" in the suburbs. I was shocked to see the total square footage of the house where four of us lived was less than the home I live in now with one another person. And yet, I don't remember the smallness. I remember stories triggered by this old ad.

When I taught a Memoir Writing class, I would suggest the class draw a picture of the house where they grew up, or a home that had a great significance in his or her life.  Don't worry about drawing abilities, just sketch and then start writing. Keep writing and remember no one ever has to read what you wrote. Unless you want to be published, and then you must be very brave and tell the truth. Splashing your life with pink paint and sprinkling glitter on it might make you feel better but it will bore your readers.

Photos are helpful when writing a memoir. Us old-timers still have those relics called photo albums stashed in a closet.  When I look at this photo  of myself I see so much more than my big tummy, bunchy swim suit, and pixie hair cut.  I remember minnows nibbling my toes, burnt red shoulders that my mom  slathered with Noxema. (Now I try not to think about skin cancer.) Then I remember I almost drowned in Lake Michigan and my father saved me. That would be a good place to start a story. 

The writer Margaret Atwood said people get bored at looking at other people's happy vacation photos of, for example, serene picnics by waterfalls.  She said add a swarm of bees to that picnic and people in a panic. The glazed-over look in people's eyes will vanish and turn to excitement. People like drama. 

I've had many students say they could never publish a memoir until their parents had died. I understand that. We don't want to hurt our loved ones. Or people will say they would never want their children to read about their pasts. Okay. Then write just for yourself or edit your life and give that version to the family. If you want to tell the complete story, with all the warts and toads, then it's courage time. 

If you want to get published, or even self publish, the one telling the truth is the one that will get read and purchased. I'm 100 percent certain of that.

If possible, visit a significant place that holds memories. I once lived in a trailer park. That is a difficult sentence for me to write. I like to think of myself as a non- trailer person. Silly. When I revisited my former home in Colorado, I stared in disbelief that I had ever lived there, in a place where it snows ten months of the year surrounded by hippies on a Rocky Mountain High. Wait. I was a hippie.  I remember and yet I had forgotten. I've met many people my age who have rewritten their past. Tuned it up. That's fine. But if you write that story it is fiction. Not memoir. 

The longer I sat in the dusty parking lot, did more memories return. All those long haired people with blue jeans unmarried and living together, unconcerned with ambitions or  material things. I had never heard of tofu until I moved to the trailer park.  The black lab I had that ran away. I named him Too Far. No joke. My neighbor, a skinny hippie who kept only vitamins in her refrigerator. I loved to go to the free box at the laundromat and dig out clothing. Is that a detail I want to share with the public? Not really. But it tells a lot about my lifestyle and who I was then. And who I was then, made me who I am today. I love thrift stores. 
Another tip. Read memoirs. There are too many to list. We all have our favorites. Read as many as you can, on all topics, written by all types of people. Start with Anne Lamott. She's my favorite. But you might have your own.

Finally, listening to music can reconnect us to our past. To this day when I hear Stop in the Name of Love I remember singing in my bedroom. Still waiting for that call from Diana, though.