25. July 2012 · 11 comments · Categories: Stories

Last weekend I received a request to moderate a new comment on my blog post “A night at Sybaris Pool Suites,” about a so-called couples paradise my husband and I once stayed at and had a mostly miserable time. My story was cross-linked to Molly Snyder’s story about Sybaris on OnMilwaukee.com. Molly graciously linked to my story on her Facebook page (thanks again, Molly) and between her readers and mine, it got a lot of action.

It had been over a month since I published the post, so I was surprised to get another comment on it. When I opened it up and began to read, I was even more surprised. Here’s what it says:

Honey, I feel that you and your man got a low libido. Or somthing else is up. But yea you can get crazy at a reg hotel or do it up. This how my wife and our night went. I got the majestic room. Chocolate strawberries and this awesome oil candles that you can light and pour on each other. And rub it in. Really it does not get hot like wax candle. Feels great. We drank some light alcohol beverages. And screwed in every. Spot we could those mirrors. Made it like a dream like the stairs they have above the bed just for moments Like this. My wife would love for u 2 to share the next bill and I think we could really “help” each out. Ask your man first and see what he says about the offer. Any person who says the dumb syphilis jokes and ect. Ect. The whole it our business thing about s…….e……x. sounds like someone who was taught it was a shamefull thing[.]

It is signed Dustin, or least that’s what the commenter says his or her name is.

I was taken aback for a short while, but then decided to have a little fun with it. I read the comment to John, then posted it on Facebook. My friends there got a huge kick out of it. Here is a sampling of their comments:

Oh, my. Now that’s not something you see every day.


“Yummy” could go either way. Please clarify.

Meant in the most sarcastic sense possible.

The more I look at it the more the phrasing appeals to me. “Spot we could those mirrors.” Why, yes! What a jolly idea!

Channeling Yoda: ‘Spot we could those mirrors . . . if on it gism shoot I.’


OH MY GOD I am laughing so hard right now

An offer you can’t refuse right??

Ha ha — such a thoughtful offer though. 🙂

top to bottom, this is a very fun thread

Another one of my friends hit the nail head straight on:

I am guessing that your reference list didn’t bring this kinda traffic, eh? I am laughing hard right now!

She’s referring to my blog post from last week, a list of books and blogs I find useful. My response:

You are so right. Resource list: epic fail, as the kids say. Juicy real life sh*t: right on. Point taken.

I owe Dustin thanks, because we did have a whole lot of fun with his comment, and it taught me a little something too. So, because I am reading Cheryl Strayed’s tiny beautiful things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar right now, I’ll respond directly to him, Sugar-style. Here ‘goes:

Dear Dustin: I didn’t quite know what to make of your comment at first. My first reaction was to permanently delete it because I’m trying to run a classy operation here.

But I decided to think things through first. In the meantime I posted your comment to my Facebook page. I hope this doesn’t upset you, but you should know that you brought a lot of joy to people that day, it generated a lot of additional interest in my story, and you reminded me that real life, with all its ragged edges and seaminess and belly fat, is where it’s at. It’s what I love reading, it’s what I love writing.

I don’t even care if this is a joke. I’m not offended, on any level. You should know, however, that neither my husband nor I are interested in your offer. We’re good. You and he and I just see places like Sybaris differently. And that’s okay. I’m glad you had such a good time there.

But I do wonder one thing: if you and your woman had such a good time, dumpling, why on earth are you home at 10:30 on a Saturday night, sitting in the glow of your laptop reading my blog and commenting on it?

You kind of remind me of the couple I write about in the story: once you did your thing with the mirrors and the strawberries (and candle wax, did you say?), I hope you didn’t drop the ball. My husband and I may not have liked the place, but he and I were out together the night you wrote. On a date.

That is my wish for you, that you are keeping things alive outside of the fantasy suite. Because that’s where the really good stuff is going on. Thank you for your comment. Take care.


Dustin’s comment is now approved.

I recently read that resource lists are the way to boost traffic to your blog. While I do care – immensely – that you’re here, I don’t really give a lick about boosting traffic to my blog just for the sake of numbers, as many bloggers do. I write essays and put them here because of selfish needs to write and share what I write.

But the idea of a resource list is still intriguing, so this week, instead of an essay, I’m trying it. What these books, blogs, and other things have in common: I like them. Selfish again. Here we go:

  • Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter (Graywolf Press, 1997) is a collection of his essays on fiction. I discovered Baxter’s short story “Gryphon” in graduate school in the book Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. (I still regret not taking a course from Stuckey-French at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival when I had the chance.) “Gryphon” is so wonderful, I look forward to reading more of Baxter’s work.
  • I’ve already written about Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist in my blog posts Part 1 and Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 3, based on the chapter “Side Projects and Hobbies are Important.” In the meantime, buy this book.
  • My friend Denise is the one who told me about this Jonathan Gottschall interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered”: Jargon to Jabberwocky: 3 Books On Writing Well.
  • In his interview, Gottschall recommends Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which I have read once and been wanting to reread for a year now. I fished it off the bookcase today and it is now on-deck.
  • Gottschall also recommends Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights, compiled and edited by Jon Winokur. I don’t usually enjoy books of quotes. But every time I pick it up and flip through a few pages (which is the only way I can digest it), I find gems.
  • Gottschall’s third pick is William Zinsser‘s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Collins, 2006). I am currently reading this book. I am currently in love with this book. Read Chapter 7, “Usage,” yesterday while doing the laundry, and this one chapter alone is worth the price of the entire book ($14.99 paperback). Thanks again to Denise.
  • Zinsser cites the works of several nonfiction writers, among them Joan Didion, one of my writing heroes. When I read Didion’s The White Album I knew I would want to read everything she has ever written.
  • John Cheever is another of my writing heroes. I am currently reading The Stories of John Cheever, 700 pages, which nets out to one short story per day for the next two months. I’m not saying you should like Cheever too, although I don’t know why you wouldn’t, but I include this book as a reminder to you to read your heroes. Study them. Practice writing like they do.
  • My beloved Boswell Book Company, up the street from me on Milwaukee’s East Side, allowed me to pre-order Cheryl Strayed‘s tiny beautiful things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar (Vintage, 2012) online this past spring, and then called me when it was in-store. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a love affair with an indie bookstore near you. There are many reasons to do so. Customer service is only one.
  • tiny beautiful things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar is genius. Strayed talks about being Sugar in this interview with Jenn Godbout on The 99 Percent (not the 99 percent you might think).
  • My goal is to attend at least one author event per month. On July 11 my husband John and I went to hear Dean Bakopolous, author of My American Unhappiness, and Patrick Somerville, who wrote This Bright River. They were funny and engaging and we bought both of their books. On July 30 I plan to see Robert Goolrick. Stacie from Boswell sent me invitations to both of these because she thought I’d enjoy them. Love her for that.
  • The New York Times gave Patrick Somerville a bum review, but it wasn’t his fault: the reviewer misread the book and the Times later had to correct the review. Patrick writes about it at Salon.com in a piece titled “Thank you for killing my novel.”
  • I wanted to see Donald Ray Pollock at Boswell this past Tuesday but couldn’t. So Stacie had him sign both of his books, The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff, a collection of short stories, for me and I picked them up the day after. He’s an Ohio boy and, like me, became a writer and got his master’s degree late in life.
  • This interview with Jonathan Franzen first ran on “Fresh Air” (NPR) a few years ago but I came across it only very recently on the blog Sometimes a Great Notion.
  • My friend Joan sent me the link to the brilliant Underground New York Public Library blog just last week. Photos of people reading books (and the titles they’re reading) on the New York City subways.
  • You’ve probably seen this one already. No? You haven’t? All right, here it is: English teacher David McCullough Jr.’s commencement address, You are Not Special, which he delivered at Wellesley High School in Boston this past spring.
Wishing you a good week. Until next time.
13. July 2012 · 5 comments · Categories: Stories

Over the winter, my husband John and I took up hiking along the Milwaukee River, just a few blocks away from where we live. We had heard a rumor from some friends about someone who had built an elaborate series of catacombs in the hillside along the river. No one seemed to know exactly where the catacombs were, but said they were built by “a crazy homeless guy” and that a newspaper article had been written about it.

A few weeks ago, John and I hiked along the river again. It’s all grown over now, lush and green, but also dry because it hasn’t rained in weeks and weeks. Tall grasses rattle. The path is packed so tight it sounds hollow beneath your feet. Water levels are low and there are things laid bare in the river we’ve never seen before: large rocks, a wooden dam, cracked patches of the river’s bottom. Before taking our usual path down, John wanted to look for the catacombs and pointed to a path going the opposite way, away from the river and into the woods. We climbed up. His instincts were right. What we found were not catacombs, but – I don’t know – huts. One big one and two smaller ones. When we climbed higher to get to one of the small ones and looked down, we saw that the big one had no top. There was something triangular hanging over it from a tree.

Looking at these structures, I felt the same way I did when I stood in the middle of folk artist Loy Bowlin’s bedazzled house at the Kohler Arts Center about ten years ago. In both cases I was so overwhelmed by what the artist had done, I cried. The way the pinecones are placed in one wall of one of these huts alone is sheer genius. My photos belie the workmanship, the brilliance. They are magnificent.

When we get home I click on the link to the newspaper story, written by Crocker Stephenson for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, titled “Man builds hidden village of nests.” The first thing I see is a picture of the man who built the nests. Then I see his name. And then I realize: I know this guy.

It was last fall, when I was sent on assignment to cover one of the many organized rallies protesting Governor Scott Walker at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. I was taking the Badger Bus, which runs back and forth between Milwaukee and Madison, for the first time and feeling a little insecure about it. Paul Zasadny was sitting there waiting too, with a big canvas bag full of stuff, holding a bright blue sport drink. He assured me that I was in the right place, and that yes, the bus was always on time, and yes, it picks up right over there.

When we boarded the bus, Paul and I headed straight for the back. I took the very back seat, he took the one in front of me. We spread out. The bus took off.

My assignment was to interview people about why they were at the rally and how they felt about Wisconsin’s political climate at the time. Paul turned halfway around in his seat and we began talking. Turns out he was heading to the rally to sell buttons, which he pronounced using a perfect alveolar stop: butt-tons. I asked him if he would care to be interviewed for the story I was working on, and the floodgates opened. He talked to me about having a disability, being on Medicare and Medicaid, and how he was afraid Governor Walker would cut these programs.

“If I get a letter in the mail saying, ‘In 30 days, you will no longer have Medicaid,'” said Paul, “what am I supposed to do?’” We talked about the East Side neighborhood of Milwaukee we both live in. Brady Street. A concert in Madison that night, where Paul would also go to sell his buttons.

As we talked, he organized his wares. “We are off-balance in Wisconsin and I don’t know when we will get back in balance,” he said. “Until we do, though, I will continue to get on the bus and go to Madison. We must keep the momentum going.”

That momentum has been stunted by the the state’s recent recall election. I don’t know if the interviews I got will ever be published.

In the meantime, Paul Zasadny has built what I now know to call nests in the woods along the Milwaukee River, and I saw them with my own eyes and they are remarkable. Now that I know who he is, I can see where the same passion and vigor with which he spoke that day on the bus and peddled his buttons at the Capitol also reside in his art.

You just never know who you’re going to meet and what they’re really all about when you first set eyes on them. I knew right away that Paul Zasadny was a little different. Now I know he’s also a genius. He thanked me on the bus that day, reached into his canvas bag, and rattled around.

“Here is a butt-ton for you,” he said, holding one out to me. “For talking to me.”

04. July 2012 · 4 comments · Categories: Photos

Our friend Wendy invited us to her place last night for a party followed by a rooftop viewing of the fireworks Milwaukee puts on in honor of the Fourth of July along Lake Michigan.

The moon was full and glorious and cast its light on the still water. Most of the chairs on the roof were pointed away from it toward Veterans Park, where the hour-long fireworks display took place just off the coast. Several boats surrounded the area; the people on half of them would have had to completely turn around to even notice the moon. A few of us up on the roof pressed against the railing to take pictures of it. But when the fireworks began, our attention shifted south.

I started taking pictures, not sure how they would turn out. At some point early on I realized that I could get the moon and the fireworks in the same shot, every shot, the moon sitting quietly, consistently on the left, burning its gaze on to the lake, while the fireworks, on the right, vacillated among frenetic, grand, gyrating, ear-shattering, choreographed to thrill. Like a little kid running around yelling, “Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

All the while the moon kept whispering, Hey. I’m right over here. 

I’m still here.

I’m still here.