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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The first time I came back here after two months away, I felt kind of embarrassed, the way a person who’s been away that long might feel as he pulls up into his driveway, sees how long his grass has gotten, and knows his neighbors hate him for it.

Since it’s been a while, I’m going to come at you stream-of-consciousness like Stephen Elliott, founding editor of the literary Web site The Rumpus.net, in his “overly personal emails” he calls The Daily Rumpus.

Time to air out the place and tend to the yard.

First, let me say that I was relieved to discover that it’s only been two-ish months since I last published something here. It felt a lot longer than that.

I have excuses: teaching three classes and taking on a huge freelance writing assignment. Between that and performing in several shows, I worked twelve hours every day for seven weeks straight.

One of the classes I taught was new: public speaking. Anyone who has prepped a course for the very first time knows how much work it is. The textbook was about the only thing I read this summer. Although I did also manage to read this wonderful and heartbreaking story: “Shatter My Heart” by Lisa Wells, which Mr. Elliott linked to in one of his emails.

I’ve taught public speaking elsewhere, and one of the things I love about the course is how well students get to know each other throughout the semester by way of everything they reveal in their speeches. How well I get to know them, too.

One of their assignments was a demonstration. One student, an avid gardener, showed us how to start string bean plants. She gave us facts such as two seeds yields one cup of beans, and that if you stake them, the plants will grow right up them like vines.

After she potted two seeds, she gave them to me and told me to keep them in a sunny window. In its early stages, the plant grew rapidly. I would go to school in the morning and when I returned in the afternoon, it would be two inches taller. I am not kidding.

Watching this plant grow has made me miss having a garden. It reminds me of the time my brother, fresh out of Ohio State twenty years ago with horticulture and landscape architecture degrees, landscaped the backyard of my first home. The plants he chose took turns blooming all spring and summer long. We had a small vegetable garden with rich, black-brown soil thanks to humus from our compost heap. White-throated sparrows rested in the viburnum hedge for two weeks each spring on their way to Hudson Bay. They had just one song, which they sang incessantly; its sound made me happy and sad at the same time. I set my micro-cassette recorder in the dining room window and let it roll all day long; I still have the tape.

My bean plant has graduated to a big clay pot; there are several string beans dangling from it; so far I have cut off six. We have a pretty courtyard out back but I didn’t feel right about putting the pot back there. The last time I did that was with the hens-and-chicks from my grandmother’s yard in Pittsburgh, which I had moved to Cleveland and then to Wisconsin. They had been with me for fifteen years, and soon after I moved to downtown Milwaukee and put them in the courtyard, they were gone. The squirrels had eaten them all.

Last Saturday morning I picked up a book for pleasure for the first time in two months and turned to where I had marked Jill Ker Conway’s “Points of Departure,” an essay in the book Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser. Two months ago I had read all but the last two-and-a-half pages of Ker Conway’s essay; I finished it that morning; her brilliance shines through on those last two-and-a-half pages as brightly as it does on the previous fourteen.

I had taken this book with me on trips to Oklahoma City and Seattle, two of the cities I was sent to interview people for the freelance writing assignment. The only time I pulled it out was to show a paragraph from Ker Conway’s essay to a woman I sat next to on the plane from Minneapolis to Seattle. We talked nonstop the entire flight, exchanged business cards, and are now in touch via social media.

These trips, including one to Asheville, North Carolina, were unusual in that on every flight I was seated next to lovely people like Jenny. There was the engineer from Phoenix to Milwaukee. John, the clergyman and counselor from the Asheville area; talking to him was like talking to Greg. The gentleman whose 1,000-page history book tested the boundaries of the seatback pocket. The two young people I was sandwiched between on a crowded flight from Detroit to Milwaukee at the end of a very long day; she and I talked about cameras and photography; he and I worked a New York Times crossword puzzle on his iPad.

The only exception was the young mother traveling with a toddler who sat directly behind us on the flight from Seattle to Phoenix. Every time her child screamed, she screamed louder for him to be quiet. This happened several times during the flight. Maybe she was nervous about flying or being cramped in a small place with her baby, or both.

But even at that, the thing I always remember first about that flight was seeing Mount Rainier, pine trees, snow-capped mountains, a volcano, the Columbia River, the desert, the Grand Canyon, and the iron-ore mountains of Arizona all in one day. I would’ve seen the Aurora Borealis too, but was seated on the wrong side of the plane.

It was my third time in Asheville, second time in Oklahoma City. Cleveland girl Pat drove down from Tulsa, where she lives now, and took me out to dinner. It was my first time ever in Washington State. I could live in Seattle without giving it another second’s thought. The only way I would move away from a large body of water would be to live in or near mountains. Seattle has both. Perfection.

I went to Seattle to interview a young woman with lymphoma. She wasn’t feeling well, but she still wanted to do the interview, so I went to the hospital to talk to her. The only parts of the recorded interview you can hear well are when she wasn’t using an oxygen mask. When I left her room, I burst into tears.

A week later, on July 5th, I texted her with a follow-up question.

“Happy Fourth of July,” I added.

Within minutes her husband texted me back to tell me that she had died. On the Fourth of July.

School ended last week. Tuesday night I had a late-night saxophone lesson. Wednesday our band rehearsed. We had two shows, Thursday night and yesterday. Our urban neighborhood is really quiet today, unusual on a beautiful day. One week ago today and one block from our home, a young woman who had just gotten engaged two days before crossed the street and was hit by a man in an SUV who then took off.

She died that night. The driver was in custody a few days later.

My cat is sleeping next to me as I write. I’m also looking through pictures of the air and water show I took two weeks ago. This morning I harvested two more beans and discovered two more of the pale white and lilac flowers that I know now will turn into beans. Yesterday I had a very civil conversation – and some fun, I have to say – with someone who pissed me off pretty badly a few months ago.

It feels like the old days. I’m glad they’re back.

2013 AIR SHOW 2

UPDATE: The person I’d had a civil conversation with pissed me off badly again a few months later. The relationship is over.

 

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02. June 2013 · 4 comments · Categories: Stories

Granny Waving

John and I spend a lot of time together. A lot. Three years ago when he left his job as an engineer to attend law school, our home became his study space, and suddenly, this freelancer who’d been working at home all alone for twenty-two years had her man underfoot almost 24-7. I recalled words my mother said when my father was first retired: “He’s putting all the dishes and silverware back in the wrong places. God.”

John and I socialize in the same circle of friends, and we are also in a band together. This doesn’t help.

By the time spring break rolled around last month, I was desperate for girl-time. I contacted three of my girlfriends: Karla, who had recently moved back to Milwaukee; Lenore (not her real name; she hates the Internet), whom I met my very first week in Milwaukee; and Martha, who had just started a new job.

Karla and I met for drinks and got caught up quickly. She and her partner had moved out East and they were gone for a few years and the breakup was bad. We talked nonstop, it was like she never left, and it felt fantastic. We talked a lot about music, which we always do. She is my music guru and has turned me on to a lot of great stuff, and I’m realizing just this second that when Greg was alive, he was my music guru, and I miss that so much. I am very lucky to have Karla in that role. She is my go-to gal now.

Lenore and I couldn’t remember the last time we’d seen each other. “Surely we saw each other last year sometime,” she said, but I reminded her that 2012 was my year of living in a cave, the year after my mama died, the year I took off and got closer to my heart and soul than I’d been since I was ten.

“I figured you and John were just huddling in with each other,” said Lenore.

“I was huddling in with myself,” I said.

We do what we always do, which is and will always be a joy to me: I drive down to Lenore’s place and bring the wine and the dessert, and she buys the sushi on her way home from work. We sit out back on the deck and talk and talk and talk. As with Karla, it feels easy, as if we saw each other just yesterday.

Most times we end up in the hot tub. I have been in Lenore’s hot tub on nights so cold my wine turned to slush. This night the weather was a little dicey—it was chilly when I got there, then it stormed and got warm and muggy—tornado weather—so we moved the party into the living room instead of the hot tub. She told me about her latest trip—hiking 180 miles of the Andes Mountains by horseback, starting in Chile and ending up in Argentina. I told her about my year in my cave. We determined that both were great trips. We talked about being at the point in our lives where we want to do more of what we want to do, not what our men want to do, because as women who are now middle-aged, we’d put aside ourselves to make room for more than enough men in our lives, and we just can’t do it anymore. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them. We just love ourselves more now. (I think Samantha said that to Smith on “Sex and the City” a few times.)

Lenore told me she was disappointed in how her son turned out, and that it was her fault because she let him have everything. That her boyfriend wanted to get married and move in, but that she never wanted to get married or live with a man ever again. That even though my mother and I had had a very troubled relationship, I probably wasn’t ready to lose her when I did.

Martha and I still haven’t hooked up. In addition to starting a new job, she moved into a new apartment. When we are able to get together, it will be just like getting together with Karla and Lenore: we’ll pick up exactly where we left off and it will feel easy and effortless and I will bask in every second.

My love for girl-time is probably rooted in the fact that I grew up in a family of mostly men: three brothers, one father, one mother, no sisters. Being in a male-dominated house probably helped me flourish in a male-dominated business (multimedia production) for over two decades. It made me feel equal to men (although there certainly are some men who don’t feel this way). I currently live with a man and two male cats. I have always been surrounded by more male than female energy.

This is why I crave girl-time. Thinking back, my love for girl-time goes way back to the times I spent with my mother and my grandmother when I was a child, when my father piled the six of us into the station wagon and drove us from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, my parents’ hometown, to visit family. My grandparents on both sides lived on the same hilly country road a few miles apart; my father and three brothers would stay with his parents, and my mother and I would stay with hers. My grandmother gave me her bed and fed me meatloaf sandwiches and apple custard squares. We went down the hill to the boulevard, which ran along the Ohio River and train yards and steel mills, and shopped at the fabric store and greenhouse and J. C. Penney together.

Of these times, the best was just sitting around the kitchen table, with its red-and-white-checked tablecloth and cups of instant coffee, the smell of which mixed with the Lemon Joy in the sink and homemade spaghetti sauce on the stove. Birds darted on and off the bird feeder that hung on the giant oak tree just outside the kitchen window.

It was here that I listened to my mother and grandmother gossip about other family members, some of it good-natured, most of it not. They talked about men and sex and the Social Security checks my grandmother cashed and then hid from my grandfather in the stacks of fabric she kept in the spare bedroom she called her sewing room. I should have been more embarrassed than I was when my grandmother told us about the time my grandfather came tapping on her door late one night (they had long been sleeping in separate bedrooms) wanting sex. It was bawdy and delicious and I reveled in it. In addition to inheriting my grandmother’s height and big feet (but, alas, not her big boobs), I inherited her saltiness, and I am grateful for it all.

My mother had her own stories to share, but she was a little stiff around me. I have a feeling she and my grandmother had their own ribald talks after I was sent off to bed. My mother and grandmother shared a closeness my mother and I never had, except for moments here and there. I am glad they had each other, and I hope they have each other right now, wherever they are.

(My heart tells me that, yes, they do.)

On the Myers-Briggs type indicator, I am a “1” on the extrovert scale. This does not mean that I am barely outgoing; it means that when I recharge, being with other people is OK, but I prefer spending time alone. Inside of me, there is a burning desire to go into my cave and spend a day or a week or a year there, and when I come out, I’m ready for the world.

When I need other people to help me recharge, for me there is nothing quite like girl-time. Dot and Jo set me on this path, and today I am extraordinarily lucky not only to have Lenore, Karla, and Martha in Milwaukee, but in Oklahoma I have ex-Cleveland-girl Pat, and in Cleveland I have Jan and Sally. All strong, smart women with whom I can talk about anything, who accept me and love me. No matter what.

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Thanks and love also to Joan, T.L., Tina, and Brandi. 

 

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05. May 2013 · 6 comments · Categories: Photos

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In Milwaukee, this is the time of year when we are so afraid it’s never going get warm again. We’ve had six straight months of hard, cold winter weather here on the west coast of Lake Michigan. Winter is not leaving gracefully and we are paranoid.

This time of year, Winter is also mentally and emotionally abusive to Milwaukeeans. It toys with us, like it did last week, when temperatures shot to the eighties and we went nuts, donning shorts and flip-flops, and sipping German beers al fresco under bare trees.

 

 

Then Winter said, “I don’t think so.” Temperatures plummeted back into the thirties; sleet fell; frigid winds leaked through the windows and we had to turn the heat on again. Friday it started raining just after John and I started out for a long walk. We looked at each other and sighed, pulled down our caps, bent forward and went. Milwaukeeans feel a keen sense of defeat this time of year.

 

 

Although we long for Winter to give up and go home, there’s one thing about it I will miss, and that’s the spectacular effect it had on Lake Michigan this year. I’m no weather expert, but there was something about the cold and snow and ice and the way the light hit everything. I’ve looked out at the lake every day for nine years now and I’ve never seen it look as strangely beautiful as it did this past winter.

Hate to say it, but I will miss it.

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IMG_5015I haven’t been writing much lately, because in January I started a full-time teaching gig. And then my students and I started lobbing the flu back and forth at each other. Most of us were sick multiple times the first half of the semester.

Through it all, though, they and I have managed to make our way through the course: Pre-College English, a refresher on grammar and writing that prepares first-semester students for their core college English requirements—courses every student, regardless of major, must take in order to graduate.

For the first half of the semester, it is wild in the streets in my classrooms—four this semester. The students are getting the lay of the land, unsure of themselves and of the decision they have made to go to college. They are quick to verbally express their opinions, but when it comes to committing their opinions to paper, they struggle, some more than others. There is something about the blank page that brings the mightiest of my students to their knees.

I tell them that I can relate to all of their anxieties around writing and expression, because I suffer them too, and so does everyone who writes, from the beginning student to the accomplished professional. They never quite believe me though. Just last week one of my students said, “I’m not doing this,” then clenched his teeth. He looked at the computer monitor as if he wanted to vandalize it and steadfastly refused my help. I told him we could talk about it later and left him alone.

This week the log jam has broken and he is forging ahead on the project.

IMG_4522The first half of our semester is dedicated to grammar: parts of speech; mechanics; sentence structure; paragraph structure; diction; voice; flow; writing process; revision; and discourse. We talk incessantly about the connection between reading and writing, how there is a distinct difference between the way we speak and the way we write, and that one of the best ways to learn how to write better is to read more.

I come at my students not as a grammarian but as a writer. I tell them, “The only way you are going to get better at writing is to write.” So we do a lot of it—and reading­—in my classes. Two weeks ago one of my students said, “Ms. Robin is having us write a whole book by the time this semester ends.” Which made me smile.

Where I teach, the Pre-College English course culminates in a five-paragraph argumentative essay project. In class, we talk a lot about arguing for or against an issue—and how it differs from having a verbal altercation with someone. We talk about the logic of the argument, how to write a thesis statement, topic sentences for each one of your body paragraphs that support your thesis, and an introduction and conclusion.

I don’t tell my students what to write about. “It will be a lot easier for you,” I say, “if you write about what you know, have an interest in, feel passionate about.” Whether that passion stems from love or anger, I add.

I tell them to use themselves or someone they know as examples. I show them how they can work cause-and-effect, exemplification, comparison and contrast, description, and narration into their essays. They prepare for this by reading several essays, stories, and speeches throughout the semester, responding to them, and seeing how other people express themselves.

IMG_4489In the five semesters I’ve taught this course, students have written the most cogent and heartfelt essays. One, a musician, made a case for the stagnant state of rap music, balanced by the signs of hope he saw emerging. Others have argued for what makes a good neighbor. Why fast food is good. Why fast food is bad. Gun control. Grandparents. Rape. Abuse. Loss.

The most stunning essay I’ve received to date is one written by a young woman whose baby was killed by her baby’s father. I never pry into my students’ lives, but I do encourage them to go deep if they want to. She wanted to. Her baby’s father, she told me, received a year’s probation for killing their child, and she wanted to argue for why he should have received a stiffer penalty.

Then she told me that her baby was killed just four months before she started school. That her mother had suggested she go to school to get her mind off of things. Every day for the rest of the semester I looked into the eyes of this beautiful child who had lost her own beautiful child just months earlier. She was elegant and intelligent and I will never forget her.

When I set out to write this, my original thought was to write a five-paragraph essay of my own as a show of camaraderie with my current students, who are aggravating over theirs right now. But I see I don’t really have room to do this now. Once again, my own writing has taken a turn, and I find myself at the end of a path I didn’t think I’d be walking.

Maybe I’ll do it another time. For now I will say:

Dear Students,

Congratulations. You have made it to the home stretch. Only three weeks left in the semester. As you make your way through the second and final drafts of your final essay project, continue to apply what you’ve learned, ask for help, stay focused. And hang in there; it will all be over soon.

I also want to thank you for everything you’re giving of yourselves this semester. And for everything you’ve taught me. In three weeks I will be sad to see you go, but I look forward to seeing you again, even if it’s only as we pass each other by in the halls. I especially look forward to seeing you at your graduation.

Have a good, restful break when this is all over. You deserve it.

Ms. Graham

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On one worksheet I give my students, they practice writing simple, compound, and complex sentences. This complex sentence gets the award for being the most vivid this semester: “The dog fell into the river, while the other dog watched.”

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