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I can’t explain what possessed me to start doing this but, similar to the things I find on City of Milwaukee sidewalks and our view of Lake Michigan, I started noticing the cinematography in some of the things I was seeing on TV and in movies, and freeze-framing and taking pictures of them with my iPhone.

A few weeks ago as I was watching the “Cold Stones” episode of “The Sopranos,” it struck me how similar one scene in it is to some elements of one of my favorite stories: “The Awakening,” written in 1899 by Kate Chopin.

In “Cold Stones,” AJ continues acting like a jerk; Vito comes back to town; Vito is killed; Fat Dom is killed; the ghosts of Adriana, Tony B, and Big Pussy appear; and Carmela and Rosalie go to Paris.

In Paris, Carmela and Ro are consumed with restaurants, shopping, smoking, and travel guides. But at one point on a walking tour, they turn on to the Pont Alexandre III bridge over the Seine and Carmela’s arm holding the travel guide drops to her side. She is in awe of the statues there. “Oh my god,” she says. “Who could have built this?” And then she can’t say anymore. The rest of the scene plays out in silence save for ambient sound and Ro’s rumblings. Carmela slowly and surely realizes that the world at large is much bigger than hers back in Jersey. And, as IMDB puts it, she wonders about her place in that bigger world. The whole thing runs maybe one minute.

 

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The scene that immediately follows is Sil instructing someone who’s cleaning the sign outside the Bada Bing. It reminds me of how John and I felt upon returning to the States after our trip to Scotland.

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We are exposed to the sting of betrayal by other human beings way before we really should be: for example, when two toddlers are peaceably playing and one steals the other’s favorite toy. Or when the third-grade classmate who sat with you at lunch yesterday is now laughing at you from across the playground with a group of students you don’t know.

High school is rife with betrayal, especially that of the boy-girl kind. Case in point: when you see your boyfriend with his arms wrapped around his old girlfriend in front of her locker, staring into her bright blue eyes. You were just on the phone last night and he’d said nothing.

Or the boyfriend who tells you he’s going out of town, but then you hear that he’s holed up at a poker game at a friend’s across town. You show up at the door and there he is.

There are the family members who betray, on all sorts of levels you don’t really understand and can never understand.

There are the betrayals that are perpetrated in the workplace, by both colleagues and bosses, and sometimes—although God knows why—by the people who are under you. The closest I came to having a colleague steal an idea of mine is a producer to whom I pitched a video concept to render an animated train that traveled through all the countries they did business in, to the tune of The O’Jays’ “Love Train.” She shot it down, saying it was preposterous, they didn’t have the budget to film a real train. She ended the conversation before I could correct her.

She left the company—and town—and all of a sudden a major beverage company is using “Love Train” and an animated train. You have to wonder.

I once had a boss—two bosses, as a matter of fact, in the same office at the same institution—who betrayed me. They were notorious throughout the organization for throwing their employees under the bus, and we all watched in fear as people in our office were betrayed, one by one. One day it was my turn. I was assigned a project that was not within my purview—I was a writer, not a traffic manager—and because one of the sheets of paper on which the project was printed was not folded the right way, I was ousted.

Betrayal stings no matter where it comes from, but it stings the hardest when it comes from friends—especially those you thought were good friends.

There’s the friend who drinks too much one night and turns mean. The friend who borrows money from you, who, when you ask for it back, says, “I didn’t borrow any money from you.” The friend who likes to control everything and when you finally call her on it, she wigs out on you and all of a sudden, you’re the bad person.

There’s the friend who sends you a long, scathing email after you’ve informed her that a friend you have in common keeps making unwanted contact with you. She sends you another long, scathing email a week after your mother dies.

The friend who is making unwanted contact is an ex-boyfriend you reunited with on Facebook. He reminds you about the time you caught him with his arms around his old girlfriend; that he followed her to another state after graduation; that she broke up with him; that he called you and said, “I’ll move back if you take me back”; and that my 18-year-old self said, “Hell to the no.”

(I am very proud of my 18-year-old self for that. In honor of her, I’d like to get all Mary Karr circa The Liars’ Club for a sec: Dude. Remember when you asked if I ever thought about you all these years, and I said “yes”? I was trying to be nice—a habit you helped break me of. I hadn’t thought about you at all. Thanks, though, for reminding me what a creep you were back then. Sorry that you’re still a creep.)

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The most recent betrayal I’ve witnessed cut real deep.

For the sake of illustration, consider the case of what we’ll call a small, progressive start-up company. When the founder started the company, he asked his wife and three long-time friends to be a part of it.

Turns out that one of those long-time friends was a misogynist and didn’t want to work with a woman. Instead of saying, “I don’t like women,” he unleashed a torrent of old hurts on the founder on his way out the door. Both the business arrangement and their friendship ended.

New candidates were interviewed for various positions throughout the company. A few of them didn’t stick: the one who wanted to be part of a less risky operation; the one who said he had won a major award in his field yet couldn’t perform in that field; the one who already had four part-time jobs but said he’d squeeze you in when he could.

There was the associate who was tapped to be the star of the company, but who didn’t want to be the star. The one who checked his watch every ten minutes. The one who was always “too busy” and kept the rest of the company waiting as he finally condescended to show up for meetings. The one who showed up to work late and drank on the job.

There are the associates who are Zen, the level-headed ones who try to keep everyone, including the founder and his top leadership, grounded, but their efforts are more than off-set by the company’s two latest new hires. One you are not one-hundred-percent sold on, but decide to try anyway. She thinks she’s better than everyone else, and then you know you were right not to be one-hundred-percent sold. The other newbie wants to take over everything and has the temerity to continually challenge the founder of the company.

Both latecomers have been in the organization one hot minute—five months and two months, respectively. Together, they become the driving force behind breaking up the organization. Off company property, they tell the reluctant star what she wants to hear. The one that was “too busy” now all of a sudden has a spark in his eye and all kinds of time.

They call a meeting with the founder. They want a change.

The founder says, “Hey. This is my company. You’re either with me or you’re not.”

Things are quiet for a few weeks then out of the blue the founder receives an email the night before Thanksgiving that says, “We’re out. And we want the company name.”

A great deal of respect was lost and friendships destroyed, including one that went back years. In the aftermath of the company folding, pieces of it were pilfered and made off with in briefcases. The associates who created the schism are trying to build a new company that gloms off of the good reputation of the old company.

After the mutiny, the reluctant star emphatically stated in social media, “I one-hundred-percent believe in karma. If you’re not careful, it will bite you in the butt.”

To which I reply, “The great thing about karma is that it works both ways, boo.”

My friend Kathleen says that karma is best when you can witness it, and that it is possible to ask the universe for that opportunity.

In the case of the start-up, I don’t think I’ll ask to see it, but I know I’ll eventually at least hear something. When betrayal is the centerpiece of what goes down, you always do in one way, shape, or form. I still hear things about certain double-crossers that let me know karma is very much alive and kicking. That’s good enough for me.

In Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank You, M’am,” Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones tells Roger, “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if He didn’t already know.” I betrayed once—somebody I loved. It happened almost twenty years ago and I paid for it dearly. I have since apologized for what I did, and he and I are friends today, which means the world to me. The situation pretty much cured me of messing with another human being’s heart. 

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My paternal grandmother’s name was Rose Marie DiNovo and she was an odd woman. She covered her upholstered furniture in clear plastic and was self-taught on the organ, which also had its own plastic cover. She insisted on playing for us within the first fifteen minutes of every visit. I can still see her, her back to us, starting and stopping, starting and stopping. It took her ten minutes to get through a three-minute song.

You would think a Sicilian woman would be a good cook, but Rose was not. She used her coffee grounds twice and boiled vegetables to beyond death. I don’t recall ever eating a single plate of Italian food at her house; our German grandmother was the one known for making great spaghetti.

Rose and my mother barely tolerated each other, and even as a small child I knew that the rift between them was long and deep. One time, while my mom went out with an old high school girlfriend, Rose, along with the girlfriend’s mother, babysat us kids and Rose said something very untoward about my mother in front of us. My brothers seemed oblivious, but I heard her. My ten-year-old self stared her down a little and she changed the subject.

Because my grandfather—his name was Mike—had heart disease, Rose did not cook with salt. To make up for it, she cooked with herbs she lovingly grew in a large garden just off the garage and alongside the fruit trees, which we kids spent a lot of time climbing. Rose grew things other than the standard tomatoes and cucumbers and beans in our garden at home, and I liked going up and down the rows looking at it all.

Although her cooking did not go over well with young children, my grandfather’s beer did. Mike made his own, in a small room with a dirt floor in the cellar. Every time we visited, he greeted us kids with “How ‘bout a shot and a beer?” and later, amidst Rose’s protestations, he’d take us down there and give us some of his homemade brew in tiny juice glasses.

Rose had a mole the size of a pencil eraser on her face. She was dark-skinned. When she started losing her hair, she a made a flat bun out of what she pulled out of her brush, and pinned it to the top of her head to hide her baldness.

She looked beautiful in her wedding picture. Everybody thought I looked like her, although I could never one-hundred-percent see it. One time I went to visit her at the mausoleum and my uncle was there, praying with his eyes closed. He caught his breath when he saw me.

“I thought you were Mom,” he said.

The day before Mike died, I drove from Cleveland to Pittsburgh to see him. He was in and out of consciousness. I sat at the end of his bed with my hand on his leg. At one point he came to; his bright blue eyes focused on me and shone like high-beams. He leaned toward me, arms outstretched.

“I think he thinks you’re Mom,” my father said.

I was well into my thirties and still had all four of my grandparents, which I came to find out was unusual, as most of my friends had only one or two left. I came to believe that it was a great privilege to be so old myself and still have these four eccentric and beautiful people in my life. They were a treasure.

Rose was our first grandparent to die. She hadn’t been feeling well and went into the spare bedroom in the front of the house, the one with the curtains made to look like someone had hand-painted scenes from China on them, to take a nap and she never woke up. Heart attack. Mike said that the moment she died, the anniversary clock on the fireplace mantel stopped. He never wound that clock again.

“This is how it starts,” I kept saying to myself. This is how it starts. Things will never be the same.

Rose was active in her church and made a lot of crafts there that she and the other church ladies sold in bazaars to help raise money for various causes around town. One time she gave me a doll she’d made out of a retired bowling pin; its eyes, nose, and mouth were drawn on with a black marker, and it wore a bonnet and cape made out of stiff gold velveteen.

When my ex and I married, Rose gave us a Jimmy Dean sausage cookbook (which incudes a recipe for sausage fudge) and several free recipe pamphlets that she’d written for from places like Quaker Oats, Snow-Floss Kraut, and the Beaver County Heart Association. She signed each one “To Cindy & Pat. November 14, 1981. Love, Granny.”

She gave me and my brothers eight-by-tens of my parents’ wedding portrait. I don’t know how she ended up with four extra eight-by-tens of our parents’ wedding portrait, but she did. When my youngest brother framed his and hung it in in the foyer of his house, my mother was pissed off to no end. She would have a fit if she knew I’ve scanned mine and put it on Facebook once or twice.

There were lots of people at Rose’s funeral, many of whom stayed afterward for a huge meal in the church basement. I kept thinking “I don’t have my grandmother anymore, just this stupid food” over and over in my head until I burst into tears and ran up the stairs into the sanctuary. This is how it starts. Things will never be the same.

After that the family went to my grandparents’ house and opened some wine. At one point my grandfather grabbed my arm and took me to the cellar, past the toilet in the corner and the room with the dirt floor where he used to make beer, into a large room I’d never been in before lined with metal shelves filled with boxes of Rose’s craft supplies. Mike took me up and down the aisles, showing me boxes of oilcloth, fake greenery, and floral ribbon.

One box was filled with large metal mixing spoons, the kind that cooks in a commercial kitchen might use. Except these were flimsy—their edges were sharp and they didn’t feel good in your hand. Mike reached in and grabbed two or three.

“Here,” he said as if pressing precious stones into my palm, “take these.”

Back upstairs, he walked from room to room with the box of spoons. “Would you like one? Would you like one?” he said to every woman at the house. His eyes were puffy and had the look of someone who can’t quite believe something he has just seen. Pretty soon there were women throughout the house who didn’t know quite what to do with their spoons. Some held them next to their wine glasses, others under their armpits. Later I saw one in the bathroom on the sink, and another sticking out of the corner of the couch.

I cried all the way back to Cleveland. Instead of my grandmother, I had a flower arrangement on the front seat of my car, and the spoons, which jangled every time I hit a bump on the road. I was angry that this was all I had of her anymore; I was scared because a significant part was missing from the only version of my family I’d known all my life. I didn’t even attempt to fix my face before going into the McDonald’s on the Ohio Turnpike. The man in line next to me looked at me with a sorrowful curiosity.

Within a month after Rose’s funeral I enrolled in classes at Cleveland State University, not knowing why exactly. Something was pushing me to it.

“Rose was a late bloomer,” said her obituary, and those closest to her reiterated this. “She was finally happy in her skin. She was coming into her own.”

My dear, strange grandmother and I were not close when she was living, but she has become one of the most influential people in my life since she died.

“I was really happy,” she seems to say. “You be happy too.”

At Cleveland State I finally figured out I wanted a bachelor’s degree in English, not for practical reasons, but for the sheer love of it. Upon graduation I was already a freelance writer.

When Greg died on March 14, 2010, he became another force. He tells me, “Put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid.”

When my mom Jo died in November 2011, it took her a little while but then she started saying: “I didn’t live the life I wanted. You should.”

I feel these three people around me all the time now, especially when I write, take pictures, and play music. There’s also a fourth: my maternal grandmother Dorothy, who loved me like crazy when she was alive, and who wrapped herself around me like a blanket of unconditional acceptance the moment she fled this Earth in 1997. Her atoms encircle me wherever I go.

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We are at the point in the semester where Mizz G begins teaching “the writing process” to her English students.

We’ve actually been talking about it on and off all semester, because they’ve been writing and writing, for seven weeks now. Some of them have thrown off the cobwebs and are getting really good.

Part of that is due to the grammar brush-up I also teach in this particular course. But although we’ll keep referring to it, it’s time to let straight-up grammar recede into the background and let writing take over for the next eight weeks, when my students will be aggravating over and driven to near-tears writing the equivalent of four essays.

“Writing is a process,” the textbook and I tell them, “one that takes time and care. And if you take the time and care, it will be worth it in the end.”

To help drive this point, I use the “Whoop That Trick” scene from the 2005 film “Hustle & Flow.” The campus where I teach most often consists largely of African-American, Latino, and LGBT students, but no matter what their race or sexual orientation, they think it’s hilarious that a middle-aged white woman even knows about “Hustle & Flow,” much less says it out loud in class, and they hide their grins behind their hands.

By the time I utter the words “Whoop That Trick,” they can’t stand it anymore and burst out laughing.

All this aside, they quickly understand what I’m trying to tell them when I show them that the “Whoop That Trick” scene perfectly exemplifies the various steps in the writing process—any creative process—from brainstorming to finished piece.

In the film, DJay, a pimp, comes to the realization that he has a knack for writing rap lyrics—rhymes.

“My mode is crackin’,” he says, “[and] I can’t be stopped.” He dreams of one day becoming a rap artist.

These instincts burn inside of him and he begins carrying a notebook around with him everywhere. Every time he gets an idea, he writes it down in that notebook. He uses it so much that it starts to get a little ratty and dog-eared.

“This is some hard shit right here, trying to take what’s in your head, man, and put it into words that fit together like a puzzle,” he tells Nola, one of his girls.

DJay’s notebook signifies the brainstorming phase of the writing process. When something about one of his ideas strikes him, DJay takes it further and roughs out some lines. I liken this to the freewriting phase.

From his freewriting samples, DJay takes a selected few—rhymes he feels are really going somewhere—and finesses them, turning them into full-fledged first drafts with a beginning, middle, and end.

It is one of these first drafts that he shows up with the day Key and Shelby come to his house to do some recording in a homemade studio with McDonald’s drink holders (“poor man’s soundproofing”) stapled to the walls.

DJay wants to get high first (procrastination is part of the writing process, one of my writing professors used to tell us), but Shelby tells him, “No, man, we can toke up later. Let’s hear what you got.”

DJay presents his first draft, reciting the opening lines: “I bet you want to beat that bitch / whoop that bitch / got me actin’ buck and shit / hoes tellin’ me to calm down / but I’m like fuck that shit…”

DJay stops when he sees Key put his head in his hands. “What the fuck’s wrong?” he asks.

Key spurs the revision phase of the writing process.

“It’s just that we want radio play,” he tells DJay. “And you got a song called ‘Beat That Bitch.’ They might hear that and think that’s degrading.”

Shelby offers his input. “But that’s if you’re calling a woman a bitch,” he says. “Most of the bitches I know are guys.”

He turns to DJay. “If you had to say something different other than ‘beat that bitch,’ what would you say?”

DJay flips through his notebook and takes his own first pass at revising.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Stuff like ‘stomp that ho.’”

Key throws his hands in the air. “Who’s gonna play that?”

DJay makes a second revision. “‘Whoop that trick,’ ‘can’t trick’…”

“Wait, wait, wait, go back,” Key interrupts. “’Whoop that trick.’”

Shelby looks at Key. “That’s it,” he says.

Key suggests further revisions, including turning the line into a chant, adding the words “Get ‘im,” and arranging all the words into a rhythmic pattern. DJay chants along with Key—he’s so taken with it that he gets up out of his chair—and Shelby begins to lay down a beat.

“Find it, man, find it,” Key tells him. More revision. Another new draft.

Shelby adds a clap then more and more percussion. Key starts the chant and DJay joins in: “Whoop that trick / get ‘im / whoop that trick / get ‘im…” DJay picks up his notebook, referring to his other lines written there, and the real writing begins.

By the middle of the second verse, he puts the notebook down on the table. He is flowing now. Nola and Shug, who have been banished to the next room, hear that there is something special going on and come to the doorway. Key waves the women in. Everybody is up out of their seats and moving to the beat.

It’s all organic at this point; in this phase of the process, the song is practically writing itself, made possible by all the groundwork that has taken place before it.

When it ends, everyone in the room is breathless, spent.

“OK,” says Shelby. “Let’s go smoke that joint.”

I don’t condone weed smoking among my students, of course. But the metaphor is never lost on them: the ending stands for how they feel when they’re finally done with a college paper or essay, and they know they’ve done the best they can and that it turned out really good. “I don’t know how I did that,” they say. “I don’t know how I got from Point A to B to C.

“But I did it. And it feels good.”

Then they go crash on the couch for a little while, or throw a ball with the kids, or kiss their moms.

Then the process begins all over again the next time they have to write another paper. Like DJay, the more ideas they come up with, the more they rough out and rewrite, the better they get. DJay learns to write hit songs that make the charts; my students learn what it takes to write hit papers that make good grades.

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Clips of the “Whoop That Trick” scene from the film “Hustle & Flow” don’t last long on YouTube—copyright infringement issues, I’m sure—so we’ll see how long the link I put here lasts. If you ever get a chance to see the movie, still a fresh take on the bildungsroman or “coming of age” story, I highly recommend it. Steve recommended it to me eight or so years ago, and it remains one of my favorites of all time.

I also use Skee-Lo to help teach subjunctive mood. We talk about how funny “I Wish” would sound if Skee-Lo sang it grammatically correctly: “I wish I were little bit taller” instead of “I wish I was…” There is indeed a difference between written English and spoken English, and one thing I try to convey in my classroom is that there are places for them both.

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GRANNY'S HOUSE w: ROADOne day last year I was thinking about my grandparents and started missing them so much that I looked up their house on Google Earth.

I felt a certain thrill, a giddy anticipation, as the satellite shifted toward rural southwestern Pennsylvania, about twenty-five miles outside of Pittsburgh, then shot down-down-down. The closer I got to those foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, the ancient trees, the curvy two-lane highways, the white Cape Cod my grandfather built with his own hands, the tighter my stomach knotted—in a good way, the same way it did when I was a kid jammed into the backseat of my parents’ station wagon next to my two oldest brothers, on our way to see both sets of our grandparents, who lived on the same steep and winding country road about a mile and a quarter apart. After two-and-a-half hours in the car with no stops on the Ohio Turnpike, we were so pent up and excited that last mile of the drive in from Cleveland that we compulsively repeated everything our parents said.

Since our maternal grandparents’ house was first on our way in, it was always our first stop.

“Lift your feet!” our father hollered every time we pulled over the sewer pipe across the top of the driveway. It was a big bump to get over with six people in the car (my little brother sat on the crack of the front seat, sandwiched between our parents), and the low-riding vehicle almost always bottomed out over it. Complicating things was the fact that the driveway was at a sharp angle to the curvy, hilly two-lane road our grandparents lived on, where the speed limit was fifty miles an hour.

Our father went at the turn an inch at a time.

“Get off the road, James,” our mother would say between clenched teeth.

“Get off the road, Dad,” we kids would echo.

Our grandmother came out of the house, drying her hands on a dish towel.

“There’s Granny!” said Dad.

“There’s Granny!” we said.

He swung the car up in front of the garage, and the four of us kids flew out of the car before he could fully shift to “park” and ran to our grandmother, then just as spastically lobbed off of her into the backyard, which started at the top of a giant hill that finally leveled out a mile away at the Ohio River. It was a million times larger and wilder than our backyard in suburban Cleveland. It was heaven.

Since Pittsburgh was so close to Cleveland, we drove there at least twice a year, often more. There were times my mother went by herself “because I miss your Granny,” she would say. And I never doubted that, but now I also know she must have made those trips because we all drove her nuts. Pittsburgh was her hometown and her escape hatch.

Consequently, while Cleveland was officially home to my brothers and me, we also did a substantial part of our growing up in Pittsburgh. There are times I consider Pittsburgh more “home” than Milwaukee. I estimate that we kids made a minimum of sixty trips to P-A from birth until about age eighteen, when, one by one, we each went away to college and then moved away from home. Eventually, we were lucky if we visited once every five years.

The last time I was there was on a business trip in 2007. I drove my rental car north from the airport to Rochester, along the Ohio River and down the ridge from where my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides lived, and down the boulevard from the mausoleum where my grandparents on both sides are now interred. As soon as my tires hit the grated steel bridge over the river and I saw the train yards and the old steel mills and the old Kaufmann’s Department Store, my heart was about pulled out of my chest, drawn like a magnet to that Cape Cod house just up the hill.

I wanted to go up and see the old house, but couldn’t; my client had booked me to fly in and out of Pittsburgh the same day and, as close as I was, I didn’t have the time. On the plane on the way home, I thought about my grandparents’ house. The back porch with the glider, which was later replaced with a swing. Our grandmother’s cooking. Her pots and pans. Our grandfather’s workbench in the basement. The way our grandmother decorated their house. (She had great taste.) The sound of cars and trucks whizzing past the house, day and night.

GRANNY'S HOUSEI think about the last time I saw my grandmother, at the bottom of their driveway, a month before I was due to move to Milwaukee. It was 1997.

“I feel like I’m never going see you again,” said my grandmother.

“Of course you will, Gran,” I said. “Don’t say that.”

She ended up being right. I moved to Milwaukee in February. That fall I was planning a visit to Pittsburgh when she was getting ready for a doctor appointment—she hadn’t been feeling well—and slumped to the floor up against the bathroom door. It took paramedics forever to get to her and by the time they did, she was dead. Heart attack.

The only other time I’ve been to Pittsburgh in the 21st century was in 2001 to visit my grandfather. I had brought the man I was in a relationship with at the time, and things had not been going well between us at all. In retrospect I hate that he was in this house with my precious grandfather and me, acting all stiff and closed-off. It feels like sacrilege. My grandfather, who throughout his marriage to my grandmother was demanding and distant, sat on his couch and cried, he missed her so much.

He died in December 2003, of cancer. I did not find out until the day before his funeral, and it was too late to make travel arrangements. My cousin lived in the house for a while, I’m told, then the family sold it in 2005. And that’s it. It’s someone else’s house now. I can’t ever go back.

The memory of this house fills my being. It is as much in the tips of my fingers and my broken pinky toe as it is in my mind and in my dreams and in everything that is good about me. I can still see it, smell it and hear and feel the people who used to live and visit there. The way it felt to run down the hill as fast as we could. The feel of the vines that hung from the trees in the woods at the bottom of our grandparents’ yard, and the hollow sound of the path that led down to the Wards’ house. The old doghouse. The taste of wild berries that grew in the field next door, before a split-level was built there and someone with a monster truck moved in. The field on the other side where my uncle took us on rides in an old sun-bleached Ford, where the Wards later built their new house.

They are all dead now: my grandmother, my grandfather, my mother, and her oldest brother. Only my mama’s baby brother survives.

One person out of a vibrant family of five that I loved so very much.

And still do.

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Two places we Clevelanders can never go to again:

A brilliant little film. (Although I’m not wild about the full-length movie trailer at the end. Fast-forward to 09:00 for final thoughts and credits.)

My love affair with The Flats predates the chronology of this video. It makes no mention of Pirates Cove, where I saw my first two music videos, the Clash hanging out after a show, and several brawls. The Cove also had the best sandwiches. 

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The last time I posted photographs of the things I find on City of Milwaukee sidewalks, it was December 2012. Here’s a year’s worth, from New Year’s Day 2013 through New Year’s Day 2014.

Last year I found several remnants of New Year’s Eve strewn about Milwaukee’s East Side, which is Party Central every weekend of the year but especially on December 31st. I’m always curious how something like the inside of someone’s shoe ends up on a sidewalk.

The spray-painted carp can be found in several places around the East Side. They travel in groups; there’s never just one. The “R” had fallen from the marquis of the Oriental Theater on Farwell. I picked it up and moved it by the front door; it was heavy, like iron. There was no dead body or dried pool of blood nearby.

Spring in Milwaukee usually lasts one month; two if we’re lucky. Most years we jump straight from winter into summer.

The sidewalks dry up. The salt flies away. Plants and flowers pop up through any opening the sun coaxes them through.

Summer sidewalks make a perfect canvas.

Milwaukee falls generally last longer than Milwaukee springs. Leaves make pretty patterns and get tangled up with lost or discarded things.

One of the funniest things I found on the sidewalks in 2013 is a white piece of paper with the words “Large” and “Wealthy” handwritten on it. I generally leave the things I find on the sidewalk on the sidewalk. Unless it’s money. “Large” and “Wealthy” was just too rich to leave behind. It’s on my dining room table right now.

At the tail-end of fall, we Milwaukeeans hang on to every little bit of good weather we can. We pay tribute to happy, flowery days in chalk. Bees are at the end of their life cycle. They no longer fly. They crawl, looking for warm spots on the concrete before they die.

If anyone ever tells you that Gummi bears and the like never spoil, they are wrong. A Gummi worm lay on the sidewalk near our place for two weeks, and two things about that were amazing to me: first, that no one stepped on it and smooshed it, and second, that it turned jet black exposed to the elements. After three weeks or so it looked like a skinny dog turd. Try explaining that to the young guy who passes by as you’re taking a picture of it.

Fall 2013 in Milwaukee lasted less than one hot minute. It got cold in early October and it’s been cold ever since. On a minus-17-degree day John and I bundled up and took an hour-long walk just to see what it would be like. Our knees were frozen in 15 minutes. The sidewalk outside a small building of condominiums was lined with ten or so discarded Christmas trees, still looking green and fresh. My iPhone was not capable of capturing all them lying in a row, waiting to be picked up for, we had hoped, recycling. So imagine the row of them continuing past your left shoulder.

The confetti was scattered all over the footbridge just north of Winsdor on Prospect. Every week a little bit more of it blows away.

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2014.

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IMG_9944The day after Christmas, John and I went out for a long walk in twenty-degree weather that culminated in stopping at our favorite German tavern for some beer and popcorn. We took seats at our favorite table and continued the conversation we’d been having while walking, which was really a long string of several short, separate conversations.

“Did you see this thread?” said John, handing me his cell phone and reading glasses.

It was open to a friend’s status update on Facebook, made on December 25: “Most horrible Xmas day ever,” it read.

John told me I should read the thirty or so comments that followed when I got a chance, which I did the next morning. They followed two tracks: “Spend your Christmas with us next time” and “Mine wasn’t so good either.”

Our friend’s dilemma got me thinking about my Christmases past, some that were brilliant, some that were dismal.

The Christmas I got my first two-wheel bike, a chrome and royal blue number with no bar in the middle, stands out as one of the good ones. So does the one when I got my chemistry set. My mother had a holy fit as I rode my new bike around and around our Early American dining room table, occasionally bashing into the backs of the chairs.

What I remember about the Christmas I spent in Florida are fake Santas in the sand, fake evergreen wreaths on the doors of manufactured homes, and palm trees with Christmas lights. The people I stayed with, relatives who were impossible to please, gave me a pastel pink sweatshirt with a built-in shirt collar and a knockoff of a George Foreman grill that weighed two tons. When it came time to leave, I didn’t have room in my luggage for the two-ton grill.

“I have to leave it behind,” I told the difficult relatives. They pitched a holy fit. I left the pink sweatshirt on the bed.

One of the best Christmases I’ve ever had was with John, when we packed two sleds, two sets of cross-country skis, our Christmas presents and our cat into his car and drove five hours to northern Wisconsin to a Finnish farm. We stayed in a cabin along a river with a fireplace and no TV, and took breakfast and dinner in the farmhouse and long breaks in a hot sauna. We skied, we hiked, we sledded, we read, we rolled around in the snow in our bathing suits after the sauna. Our cat played with a paper ribbon that had come off a present and took long naps in a window in the winter sun.

This year was also good. Still recuperating from our respective semesters, John and I decided to stay in Milwaukee and have our own Christmas. I did most of my shopping online at the last minute and wanted nothing to do with the Christmas cards; John signed my name and mailed them all. We did no wrapping. Our Christmas tree was the inflatable one we got at the secondhand shop last year.

Christmas morning we put all of our Amazon boxes and FedEx envelopes in a pile on the living room floor. We had no idea whose packages were whose, and we laughed when we got them mixed up. Our cats (we have two now) pawed at bubble wrap and jumped in and out of empty boxes.

IMG_9846John unwrapped two large snifters wrapped in brown paper bags and poured us some Drambuie, a gift from me to him. We watched “Uncle Buck” and “The Sopranos” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Summer Fun: Hyde Park Live,” filmed in London this past summer. I cooked a small ham and sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts.

It eschewed all kinds of tradition. And it was beautiful. With each passing Christmas, I grow less tolerant of the hype. It really bothers me that Christmas was only two weeks ago, but it feels like two years. That the day after Christmas the carols stop and the TV sets scream “Markdowns!” I can tell by the way the horns are honking on our busy city street that the good cheer has stopped. In the past week we have received three tax forms. When it’s over, it’s over.

You wouldn’t expect the Christmas that occurs a month and a half after your mother dies to be a good one, but that one was actually pretty nice.

The most heartbreaking Christmas I ever had was the year I left a bad relationship. It was 2002, and I was also estranged from members of my family because of an incident that occurred the Christmas of 2001 that I had the temerity to speak out against. It caused a very deep rift that was still going on a year later and as a result, I had nowhere to go for Christmas.

My brother invited me to stay with him at his condo in Ohio. Some friends in Wisconsin invited me to Christmas Eve dinner with them. I decided to go out with my friends then spend Christmas Day driving to Ohio.

Christmas Eve dinner was at a Chinese restaurant with dark paneled walls and red velvet drapes. It was the scene from “A Christmas Story” but with better furniture. And it was crowded. I liked that my friends had turned this into a tradition for their family. Their adolescent son regarded me tentatively, as if I were stealing some of the attention he’d normally get.

Despite being thankful for someplace to go that evening, I was also feeling desperately lonely. My brother would be at my parents’ when I got to Ohio, so he would leave the key under the mat. I had received an email saying that while it would be OK if I came for dinner, it would be better if I just came for dessert.

IMG_0097All right, I wrote back, see you at seven.

Christmas Day I received a message saying that I was no longer invited for dessert.

I let myself into my brother’s condo, unpacked my things in the back bedroom, and opened a bottle of wine I’d brought in my suitcase.

As bad as it felt to be alone Christmas Day, the eight hours it took to drive from Milwaukee to Ohio were sparked by unexpected flashes of love and light: four phone calls from six friends who were calling to see where I was and how I was doing. Who knew I was driving to somewhere and nowhere at the same time, that I wasn’t invited to Christmas and why, and that just five months earlier I had left an abusive man.

      • One of the calls was from the friends who’d taken me to the Chinese restaurant.
      • One was from a friend who was looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve with me.
      • One was from a very handsome man in Wisconsin I’d had a few dates with.
              • One was from Jan and Greg, two loves of my life.

They told me they couldn’t wait to see me, that they loved me, and to be careful driving, they’d see me soon.

Our friend’s December 25th Facebook post struck a nerve. “I can commiserate” was the general tenor among the comments. “Friends always love you,” wrote one person, with a little heart at the end of the sentence.

Another person acknowledged that Christmas is a difficult time of the year.

However, he added, “If you don’t ask too much from it, sometimes it surprises you with more than you requested.”

If Christmas is bad for you, I hope you make the most of the next ten months before it all drums up again. I will be there for you next December if you need me.

For those of you for whom Christmas is good, I bet you are also the sort whose goodwill isn’t contained within two months of hype. May you be blessed for that.

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Don’t player-hate, but for Christmas I asked for – and received – three CDs of old record albums I owned in my late teens and early twenties: Close to You by The Carpenters, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, and Glass Houses by Billy Joel.

The first reminds me of high school, when I listened to Close to You over and over, fascinated with Karen Carpenter’s vocal range. Singing along with her was the first time I realized I might have some kind of voice.

Rumours was a colossal hit when I was in college a few years later. It was one of the albums I played as I, an art minor, drew and painted by the back screen door of the house I rented south of campus with three girlfriends.

Glass Houses reminds me of my first car, a 1978 glacial blue Pontiac Lemans with no radio. For a year I drove around with nothing but the sound of tires on pavement and my own thoughts in my ears. The following year I bought a Craig cassette player and a pair of Jensen speakers. After they were installed, my brother recorded several of his favorite record albums on a bunch of blank tapes and gave them to me for Christmas. He’d labeled each of the dozen or so tapes by hand on the white cards that lined the plastic cases: The Royal Scam by Steely Dan; Jazz by Queen; A Trick of the Tail by Genesis. Glass Houses was another. I bought a brown vinyl carrying case from Peaches to keep them in. I still have them all.

The other day I imported my three new CDs into iTunes on my Mac, something that at age 18 I couldn’t conceive of someday being able to do. I don’t know how we start out in this world so dependent and timid and how years later we realize that we can now find our way around the world without anyone’s help. I don’t know how I evolved to this point technology-wise, but here I am.

I  created a new playlist list on my iPod, named it “Old Record Albums,” and uploaded the tracks. I pulled on my boots, zipped up my hi-tech ski jacket, hit “Shuffle,”and left for a long walk along Lake Michigan in fifteen-degree weather.

I walked. And I listened. A few of the songs made me wince and others made me laugh out loud for joy.

And I suddenly wished that my mother had had an iPod with the songs of her late teens and early twenties: The Swingle Sisters; Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass; Andy Williams; Sam Cooke. And I wished that she had listened to it while taking long walks along a winter lake, her hands shoved deep in her pockets, her heart as light as magic.

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Out of the blue at the end of this past August, I received an email from my Web host: “The migration of your site to our new server is now complete!”

Well, my site on that new server moved as slow as the last day of work before the first day of vacation. Many of you let me know that it was taking forever to load; some you could not get in at all. Subsequent online chats (I hate them) revealed that I was now sharing a server with five gazillion other sites.

I’m happy to say that I have moved to a new Web host and things are running as they should: smooth and fast. The site is in some disarray, similar to your house after the movers just left: photos aren’t where they’re supposed to be, and goodness knows where some of the links will take you.

But we’ll get that worked out. For now, I’m glad you’re here and I’m here, and I apologize for the slowness of the old site. Thanks  to 1&1 for breathing new life into this space. And very special thanks to dear Web designer friend Pat of MojoWeb Productions here in Milwaukee, who wrangled the old site and brought it back into the light. Looking forward to dinner with you, man.

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In the process of moving, some of your subscriptions were lost. We were able to rescue most of them, but it’s possible that we missed a few. Conversely, you may have been re-subscribed when you didn’t want to be; if so, my apologies again; please feel free to remove yourself; no offense taken.   

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It’s closing in on the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death: November 2, three days after she turned 75 years old, from the terminal cancer she had been diagnosed with ten weeks earlier.  IMG_8750

The weekend of her funeral, between afternoon and evening visiting hours, my father took the family and close friends out to dinner at a nearby French restaurant that he and my mother had frequented together. I remember much about the meal, which was spectacular, and the company, which was warm and beautiful. It was difficult to return to the funeral home afterward.

Last year my father held what he refers to as a “commemorative celebration of life” on the first anniversary of my mother’s death, at the same French restaurant. This is in vogue now, I guess, commemorating one’s life-after-death as you would a birthday. When someone asked Jan if she was having a celebration-of-life on the first anniversary of Greg’s death, she was taken aback. I don’t blame her. The idea of it is rather new, like formal gowns and limos for eighth-grade graduation, and it takes some getting used to.

Last year I wasn’t emotionally ready to join my family for the first anniversary of my mother’s death.

This year, I am.

Except a few days ago I had to tell my father I can’t make it because our band has a show the night of the 2nd. As I have so many times since moving from Ohio to Wisconsin, I want to be in Cleveland at the same time I want to be in Milwaukee.

Story of my life.

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There are two books in my office: Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties by Wini Breines, and Volume 37 of the literary journal Women’s Studies Quarterly, published in Fall/Winter 2009. It is a special issue titled Mother.

I bought them last year to help learn more about my mother, because after she died, I realized that I really didn’t know that much about her – her hopes, fears, dreams, joys.

At the funeral home, my father had lined up dozens of pictures of my mother in chronological order on tables along one wall.

My mother was a pretty woman, even in her seventies. But I didn’t know what a great dresser she was when she was young. And that she had such a knockout bod. In one picture she’s wearing a Sixties bikini, and she has abs. After four kids! In a shot of her and me on a blanket in a park, there is no mistaking that she was absolutely in love with her baby girl.

Most of the pictures I had never, ever seen before. “Who is this person?” I kept wondering as I looked at the photos for the fifth, tenth, fifteenth times. I tried filling in the blanks of what I knew with what I saw before me.

To the right of my mother’s coffin was a table with photos of her at the end of her life: her last vacation out East; IMG_8761my brother’s wedding, just six months earlier; curled up on the family room sofa, just days before her death.

The very last photo was a medium shot of my mother in the backyard of my childhood home, where my father still lives. I remember being there. She is making a face and giving the camera (the photographer) the finger.

That shot being positioned as the exclamation point of her life was sheer brilliance on my father’s part, and I will always love him for that.

So far I’ve read very little of Mother and Young, White, and Miserable. I don’t think they will help me understand who my mother was. I wish I had pressed her more when she was alive. Knowing what I know now, I would just come out with it: “So what are your hopes, fears, dreams, and joys anyway?”

Not that she would tell me. I know better than that. She has always been, and always will be, an almost complete mystery to me.

The one thing I do know a lot about is our relationship. I am an expert in the effects it had, still has, and probably always will have on me.

IMG_3988I want to be like author Cheryl Strayed, whose own mother died of cancer, and who explores their relationship in her wonderful memoir Wild. I met her last year; in interviews she has said that she considers writing about her mother her life’s work. I don’t know exactly how I will write about my own mother, but I’m happy with the way I’ve started. Like Russell Baker, who writes about his relationship with his mother in Growing Up, anything I write falls flat without her in it. Like Frank McCourt, who wrote about his mother in Angela’s Ashes, I’ve tried writing fiction, but “reality [keeps] intruding.”

So I have decided to throw up my arms and embrace truth—or, as Baker and McCourt state in the 1998 edition of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser, a version of the truth. Maybe not “the” truth. But my truth.

I don’t necessarily need to know everything about my mom to do this. I know enough. Including that we both are the kind of chicks who give the camera the finger. And have husbands with very good senses of humor.

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