Every once in a while, something happens that makes me think of all the people who’ve moved in and out of my life over the years.

Some of these people were childhood friends who probably don’t know how much of an impression they made on me, much less know that I still think about them. The fourth-grade classmate who was into horses who got me into horses who moved away before we reached high school. My first boyfriend, who felt up my leg in the dark at the high school planetarium on a fifth-grade field trip. The daughters of old family friends. We hadn’t been in touch in decades and suddenly, out of the blue, reconnected this year after our mothers died.

Sometimes the friends you make stay and stay and stay. For years. I am blessed to have more than just a few friends on this list. If you’re lucky, all three of your brothers are on this list. Yesterday John suggested I fly to see one of my friends who’s on this list and I burst into tears. I miss her more than I thought.

Sometimes you have friends you get mad at for six years, during a time when you leave your borderline-personality ex and your mother is not speaking to you. And then you get back together and it’s like you never broke up.

There are the friends you make on social media. There are the friends you went to high school with, with whom you reconnect on social media. Some are utter joys to know again. Some you wish you’d left in your memory of how they were back then.

There are the brand-new friends. The ones who treat you to lunch. With whom you have intelligent conversations. Who understand your soul. You don’t yet know if they are here for the time being or the long haul. It doesn’t matter. They are here now, and so are you.

There are the friends who die. Who will stay with you every day for the rest of your life. And who knows, maybe after that too.

There are the friendships that you thought were friendships, but then discover they never really were to begin with. The borderline-personality artist you befriend immediately after leaving your borderline-personality ex. The impossibly arrogant, self-important woman from high school. The despicable human being who goes on to scare the shit out of you for a year after you say, “I’m done.”

This time, the something-that-happened that made me think about all the friends who’ve come and gone and stayed was the end of another friendship that never really was. It happened just a few weeks ago, when someone I once considered a friend blindsided me with a very long and ludicrous email. As I read it on my phone in the laundromat, I laughed out loud in places.

“Must be something really good,” said the young woman next to me, smiling.

“Life is too short,” said a friend – who happens to be a new friend and someone I consider smart, cool, collected – just two days ago.

The fallout from the breakup of this friendship, among other things, makes me think of the in-and-out, the life-and-death of friendships. It happens to every single one of us. I don’t know how we survive it sometimes. But we do.

“Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant,” writes Stephen King in his novel The Body. Thank goodness for the ones who teach us something we need to learn before they move on. Who’ve given us good memories. Fantastic memories.

Thank goodness for the ones who stay. No matter how they stay.

We saw Lake Street Dive when they opened for Los Straitjackets at Turner Hall in Milwaukee last fall, and were blown away. (The whole night blew us away, really.) “Miss Disregard” is on their studio CD, Lake Street Dive. Their new EP is Fun Machine

In June I told you about a project I’d started: photographing things I find on Milwaukee’s city sidewalks. My mama had always yelled at me to stand up straight when I walk, but I still do it leaning forward and looking at the ground. The habit became useful when I got my iPhone and started taking pictures of the stuff I find down there.

I posted the first forty shots back then. You can also find them (among others) under my Photos tab. What follows are the next forty shots in the series.

Some notes:

The first “Dad” graffiti I found was “I Love You, Dad” on a sidewalk on Farwell Avenue. Then I found it on the other side of the street and farther south and over on Prospect Avenue. It was nowhere near Father’s Day. At the time I imagined that someone’s father had just died and the writer was grieving on the sidewalks, sensing it in the hastiness in which it seemed to be written and the droopiness of the letters. I still feel this way every time I see them.

I don’t know who or what Visceral is, but I have him pictured as, well, a he, and a rapper or a tagger, like the ones I saw in the documentary “Infamy” a few years ago. His tag is all of a sudden everywhere, usually in black paint. The last one I saw looked as if it had been written in Gorilla Glue: amber in color, drippy, tacky. If anyone in Milwaukee knows who or what Visceral is, drop me a line.

The recliner: I discovered it the way you first see it here. Over a period of two weeks, the beer bottle disappeared. Then the armrest covers. Then the bottom cushion. In the final stages of its evolution, upholstery was ripped from it, padding exposed. The chair got pushed over on to one side, then the other, then on to its back. Then it disappeared altogether.

The magazine rack: I discovered it on my way to a breakfast meeting. Early American-ish, like one your dentist might have hanging in the waiting room. Excellent condition. A flea market price tag on it. I wanted to take it. But: the meeting. I decided to snag it on my way back, if it was still there. It was not.

Something I could not take a picture of I found on a heavily trafficked sidewalk a half-block from our place: a tiny little creature – I did not know what – lying by its lonesome, fetal, eyes that had never opened. A Google search revealed that it was a newborn gray squirrel. It had apparently fallen from a nest in a tree that hung over the sidewalk. It was dead.

I shoved the iPhone in my back pocket, wrapped the baby squirrel in a Kleenex, dug a hole under a tree in our courtyard, and covered the tiny thing with a leaf, then dirt. If you want to know what it looks like, you’ll have to Google it for yourself.

After I posted happy birthday wishes on our friend Josh’s Facebook wall yesterday, he wrote back and said, “I hope you’ve had a good summer.”

I told him I had. That was a lie. It wasn’t all that great.

The millions of us in the U.S. who are celebrating Labor Day this weekend are on some level probably taking stock, reflecting back on what we did over the summer, wondering if we took full advantage of the weather, the time off, the open-air activities. Labor Day is a final salute to summer, and I’m betting most of us are realizing that, no, we didn’t do everything we’d intended to do. And that because we feel disappointed and inadequate over it, we will try to cram as much as possible into this last long weekend before fall begins to set in.

The reasons my summer wasn’t all that great stem mostly from the fact that we live in an urban neighborhood, one that young people like to live in after they get their first jobs out of college, and suburbanites like to visit because it is a good place to see and be seen. Urban neighborhoods are noisy by nature, no matter what time of year. But add to the mix this summer’s oppressive heat and people flocking to Lake Michigan to seek relief, and you have more commotion than usual.

There was inordinate traffic. People who couldn’t parallel park. Driving the wrong way on one-way streets. Car horns. Every day, car horns. Residents without air conditioning sitting on stoops, trying to derive every last bit of coolness from the concrete. No rain. People partying late on the roof deck next door, people stumbling north from the bars on Brady Street and hollering at 3 a.m., people stumbling south from the bars on North Avenue and hollering at 3 a.m. One of these times, a young woman wailed and wailed outside of our building because someone stole her cell phone at a club. Her friend called her cell, the thief picked up, and said he wanted $400 for the safe return of her phone. Then hung up. More wailing.

Garbage trucks at 5:45 a.m. on Monday morning. Utility crews jack-hammering. Someone repairing a sidewalk and jack-hammering. The lawn tools, oh, the lawn tools: leaf blowers and weed-wackers and state-of-the-art mowers that urban dwellers use on green spaces the size of one SUV. The carpet cleaners and their compressors. Public works employees who hack at trees, leaving some to look like deciduous cacti. The landscape crew of five that took a week to do work that should have taken that many people two days. Every time I went out they were on break.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen tuckpointers in action, but they’ve been hanging off our building and the building next to ours the past four summers, using saws and drills to grind out the mortar between the bricks, and then squishing new mortar into the gaps. This summer the building next to us and the building on the other side of it have had tuckpointers working on them since late April. Every day: grind, dust, grind, dust. The guys on the building next to us play country music real loud, and the guys on the other side of them play classic rock real loud. When I threw open our bathroom window and asked the guy to turn down his country music, he wagged his finger at me and yelled, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you like music?”

The accidents. More than I remember other summers. One occurred right in front of our building and involved six cars; a bicycle cop handled the whole thing. Accidents that, when you look at the aftermath, you can’t imagine how they happened. Who did what first? A young man on a motorcycle was hit by a car a half block away from where we live. The sound of the impact was eerie, but not half as eerie as the sound of his bike sliding across the pavement and under a parked car. It was the sound of Earth holding its breath. I will never forget it.

I know all this because this summer I was a homebody; I work out of our home and so can’t help that. But I also felt very introspective and didn’t want to go much of anywhere or do much of anything except to play music, write, and think.

I rode my motorcycle only twice. One of those times my bike broke down. Went to only one farmer’s market and one ethnic festival. The food from which made me vomit later that night. My husband, on break from law school and bored, was underfoot. I stopped meeting with a group of friends at the German bar up the street every week; it had become too much. I called out a person who isn’t very nice who tried messing with someone I love. I lost weight, put it back on, lost it again. Did not visit the gym for a month. Slept poorly overall. Discovered that some friends aren’t the good people I was led to believe. Three rejection letters. Two potentially lucrative freelance projects severely pared back; two others placed on hold.

This commotion went on all summer long. I am happy to see it end.

But among all of these things are some stunning, gorgeous flowers in a field of weeds, as my undergrad mentor, Dr. Louis T. Milic, was fond of saying. The week after one of the most bizarre things that has ever happened to me in my professional career (I thought about writing about it here, but won’t dignify it), one of the world’s top newspapers contacted me. The writer had read something on my blog that pertained to a story she was working on and requested an interview. We talked last week and she will give me a heads-up when she knows the story is being published. Our band played its first two gigs, and we had our first professional photo shoot. I published one piece per week here. Made some nice friends in real life, on Facebook, at the bookstore, and among other writers in my community. I am finally working my way through a new essay on a topic that has been haunting me my whole life and is very difficult for me to write about.

And I got three new pairs of shoes. Adiós, Summer.

Torn Soul band photo by John Hauser

I don’t know when my love for laundry began. One of my first memories is going to a Laundromat with my mother right around the time I had finished reading Harriet the Spy. I took a small spiral notebook and a pen with me, and as my mom washed and dried our clothes and towels and bedding, I eavesdropped on the other people there and wrote down things about them. I wonder if I still have that notebook somewhere. I’d love to see it now.

Another early memory is my grandmother’s wringer-washer, in the basement next to the garage, where my grandfather’s woodshop was. He had his domain down there; she had hers. I remember that washer as if I had seen it just yesterday: the black cord running from it to the wall, the stationary tub my grandmother positioned it next to, the way the clothes came out of the wringer all flat and matted and nearly dry, like large cuttlebones.

It may have been my grandmother from whom I inherited my love for laundry. I did, after all, inherit her big feet. I don’t know what it is about it, exactly. The smell of soap, the low rumble of the machines, the ergonomics of the task itself—all these are appealing, but I think it’s the sense of renewal more than anything else.

In the late Eighties I accidentally caught the last ten minutes of an award-winning 1981 documentary on cable titled “Clotheslines.” The filmmaker, Roberta Cantow, had interviewed several New York City women about their views on laundry.

Their responses were varied. A few, like me, loved it. But some of them had the most heartbreaking stories. Things like: “My family has no idea how much work it is.” “I never get any thanks.” “My husband has certain rules for how I must do laundry but refuses to do it himself.” “It just never ends.” I was transfixed.

Many of the women also talked about their mothers’ attitudes toward laundry. I don’t know how my mother felt about it. I tend to think that with four kids and a husband, if there was one thing she liked about it, it was that it got her out of the rest of the house and into a dark, quiet corner of the basement. She may have propped open a basement window and snuck a few smokes.

Since many years have passed since I did this, I think it’s safe to confess now. After I caught that little bit of “Clotheslines,” I wanted to see the whole show. TV listings indicated that it would be on one other time, in the middle of the afternoon during the workweek. This was way before TiVo and DVRs that you can program from your cell phones. I went to work and forgot to set the VCR to record it. I realized it in the middle of a training session. My face blanched. When someone said, “Oh my god, are you all right?” I decided to take advantage of it and say, “I feel sick. I think I have to leave for a minute.”

I got in my car, sped home, and set the VCR, just in time. When I returned my boss said, “You were gone a long time. We were worried. You OK?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am. Thanks.”

I have the VHS tape somewhere in storage. Over the years, I’ve thought about “Clotheslines” often and very fondly. Five years ago you couldn’t find anything online about it. Now you can, including the fact that the film is now available on DVD.

Right before I met and married John, I lived in a so-called luxury apartment, brand-new, with my own garage, a walk-in closet, and two bathrooms, one of them a master bath, the first one I’d ever had. I also had my own washer and dryer, in a closet next to the kitchen. It was heaven.

When I moved downtown into an old Art Deco building with John, I had to go back to sharing two washers and two dryers in the basement with fifty other people.

A few months ago, our building replaced the washers with water-saving top-loaders. The first time I opened one to add fabric softener and saw my full load of clothes being rinsed in eight inches of water, I was aghast. You couldn’t see any water—just the agitator smooshing clothes around. It was fabric abuse.

So I started taking our things to the Laundromat two and a half blocks away, where all the washers are fabric- and environmentally friendly front-loaders, Tuesday through Thursday are one-dollar double-load days, and the attendants are sweet—not at all the sort who will angrily remove your soaking wet clothes from the washer because they think you’re taking too long, like some of our neighbors. I take my laptop there sometimes, sometimes a book, sometimes both.

If I had my druthers, I’d buy a Laundromat and do most of my writing there. The mild chaos in the background—TV, rushing water, clinking coins, nonstop machine hum—helps drown out my inner critic and enables me to be very productive.

If I had a Laundromat, however, there would be rules. No quarreling. No crying newborn babies. No blocking the aisles with your large laundry basket gizmos. Some of which make me wonder, where on earth did you find that?

If you look twenty years old and ask me how to work the machines and how much soap you need to put in, I will give you the skunk eye, ask for your mama’s phone number, and then go back to my writing.

No panhandling. No wearing of sunglasses or carrying on loud one-sided cell conversations. No hitting on women who clearly do not want to be bothered. TVs: for sure. But they never play anything with Giuliana Rancic or Justin Bieber in it.

If you are a man hitting on a woman, and you suddenly get all sweet and friendly after you see she’s annoyed, that is allowed.

But if, after things have been going so nicely, you blurt out, “So are you happily married?” you are not allowed to do that in my Laundromat.

My Laundromat also will not offer “we will wash your clothes for you for a fee.” Because I don’t want to be anywhere near your dirty drawers. Let’s not forget that I own this joint so I can write. And I’ve got work to do.

To view a three-minute clip of “Clotheslines,” visit Roberta Cantow’s Web site and click on “Sample Links.” To purchase a copy of the film, click on “Contact.”





This week I’m taking time off here because: 1) two gigs and two rehearsals in one week have cut into writing time (clearly I need to figure out how to balance these two loves of mine); 2) John starts his fall semester next week and I want to hang out with him as much as possible before becoming a law school widow for another 16 weeks again; and 3) I got a scriptwriting project yesterday that requires a quick turnaround. Deadline: Saturday. As in the day after tomorrow.

So I will see you next week, with an essay on one of these topics:

  • Personal branding: yes? no? never-ever?
  • Why I love the laundromat
  • Flipping Out‘s Jeff Lewis is right about the word “journey”
  • Behaving properly in the day/age of cell phone cameras and videotaping, social media, and sharing-sites like YouTube

Take care and we’ll see each other next week. In the meantime, feel free to post your random thoughts on the above or other topics. What’s been on your mind lately?

My week this week began with a rejection letter from a literary journal to whom I’d sent my latest short story. They emailed it at 9:18 a.m. on Monday.

A second rejection letter from another journal for the same story arrived at a more congenial time: Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

A few years ago I would have been crushed. I’d dabbled in writing fiction for fifteen years and been devastated the two or three times I had the nerve to submit something and got rejected. Enough to crawl into a hole and not write again for a very long time.

This time I actually feel invigorated by these rejection letters. I look at it like, “Oh, goodie, now I can send the story to Journal C and Journal D.”

Something’s happened in the past year. I don’t know what, but I feel very committed to making it work this time and know I’m on the right track. I think about my creative writing professor who told us it took him seven years to get published. And he’s really, really good. Brilliant. I know my story is good. Not brilliant. But it works. My readers and writing group back me up on this. It’s a matter of finding the right place for the story, at the right time.

My mantra this week is another thing my creative writing professor told us: persistence, persistence, persistence.

“Some of you in this room are ready to be published now,” he told us. “You’re just going to have to keep the faith and keep writing, no matter what, because it probably won’t happen right away.”

In the meantime, last fall I started playing alto saxophone and singing in an eight-piece soul/ska/reggae-beat/R&B band. Our horn section is all-female. Being in a band like this is something I’ve fantasized about since dancing around to and singing with the B-52’s in my living room in the Eighties. Writing stories and playing music are things I loved doing when I was a kid. I don’t know where it’s all leading now. But I don’t care.

In his book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon argues that “side projects and hobbies are important.”

One thing I’ve learned in my brief career: It’s the side projects that really take off. By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just messing around. Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens.

The important thing is allowing yourself to do it. I have a work ethic that is through the roof. It’s what’s made me successful. But it’s also made me rigid. Myopic. Unhappy.

Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander. You never know where it’s going to lead you.

I recently had lunch with a fellow freelancer. Lovely time, from start to finish. But I was a little thrown off when he said, “I see by your Web site that you aspire to write fiction. Aren’t you afraid it will distract you from what you do for a living?”

No. No, I do not.

If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life.

For decades I felt as my colleague does. I did not allow myself to pursue the things that were nagging at my heart. Because I needed to focus. So that’s what I did. But something was missing.

You can cut off a few passions and focus only on one, but after a while, you’ll start to feel phantom limb pain.

I know all about this phantom limb pain. It’s been woven into my being since my teens and had been getting, as Austin acknowledges, worse and worse from neglect. It’s taken me a long time to give up the control, take chances, and allow all my passions back into my life. I’ve discovered there’s room.

“Don’t throw any of yourself away,” says Austin. “Don’t try to make money or get famous off [your hobby]. Do it because it makes you happy. It’s regenerative. It’s like church.”

The week of mine that began with two rejection letters also included emails from four clients in two countries who accepted the first drafts of stories I wrote, saying, “We like them as is. No revisions. Thank you.”

It also included some painting and drawing, which I hadn’t done in a while.

And it ends with our new band’s very first gig tomorrow. We’re called Torn Soul. I wish you a good weekend.

no images were found

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series were published previously. Part 3 concludes the series. 


On July 22 John and I ride our motorcycles up north in Wisconsin. It’s a short, three-day trip, enough to give us a sufficient break from city living.

On the way home we pull into a truck stop in Green Bay to get gas. After I fill up, I turn my key, pull in the clutch, and start the bike. Nothing. I try a few more times. Still nothing. There had been no warning signs.

John pushes the bike off to the side, and over lunch we call a few friends who know bikes. None of us can figure out exactly what’s going on, so we decide to get a tow to the nearest Harley-Davidson dealership through Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) Roadside Assistance.

I am the only female in the truck stop café other than the waitresses, as I’m sure they’re referred to by the men: farmers, drivers, laborers with baseball caps and stained blue jeans who fill the booths and are lost in a Mitt Romney press conference on television.

Their attention is broken only when the tow truck comes for my bike, and they come alive. Eight or so of them slide out of their booths and crowd around the one with the best view.

“Well, look at that.” “That there motorcycle is dead.” “Look at that guy with tattoos all up and down his arms, you see that?” “I bet it’s his.” “Poor sucker.” “That there’s a sweet trailer.” “Someone ain’t going home tonight.” “Them Harleys cost your firstborn to repair.” “Yep.”

I had remained inside to finish my food. The tow truck driver and John get the bike turned around. The tow guy grabs the handlebars and John pushes on the back. They start to run with it. The men inside start to whoop.

“Look at ’em go!” says one, pressing against the window. “Don’t miss that trailer now!” says another. Laughter. I roll my eyes.

John and the tow guy run my bike up the ramp and inside the trailer. As it crests, the men inside collectively holler, “Whoa!”

I grab my helmet. As soon as I stand, the guys see me with my gear and they get real quiet and stare.

“It’s a broken down bike, so what?” I say.

I have to ride in the tow truck because John’s bike is not set up for a passenger. The truck is a behemoth and stepping up real high to get into it won’t cut it, so I have to hop a few times on one leg to get some momentum going. The driver and I pull out of the truck stop, with John following us.

The driver’s name is Gary. We start talking. Real nice guy, married, a father, been a tow driver a long time, and he has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.

Gary grew up riding dirt bikes, he tells me. When he became an adult he bought a street bike.

“I passed my rider course, took my test and got my license the next day. My second time out I made a turn into some gravel. My wheels went out from under me and I slid about twenty feet. Messed up my hand and tore up my jeans. Got scars up and down my leg. I decided right then and there to just give it up.”

I tell him I don’t blame him. We talk about the dangers of motorcycle riding. That so far this season I know of six people who were killed when their motorcycles crashed. One guy was in the same H.O.G. chapter as me and John. A few weeks ago a Wisconsin couple lost control of the motorcycle they were riding and went down. They both died. They had three children.

“The roads aren’t what they used to be,” says Gary. “There are so many more of them, so much more traffic, and people drive like they’re only thinking about themselves.”

He tells me about some friends, a couple who were riding their motorcycle on a highway when the tire of the truck in front of them blew.

“There was so much traffic they had nowhere to go,” he says. “That rubber just came flying back at them. The bike tipped back and forth several times before he was able to regain control. When they pulled over, he and his wife stared at each other for two minutes straight without saying a word. He sold the bike after they got home, but a year later he couldn’t stand it anymore and bought another one. His wife refuses to ride anymore.”

Even though it’s 2012 and I think there should be more women riding than there really are, it’s still largely a man’s thing, and I am a girl who has always loved doing what mostly only boys do. I’m proud to have my motorcycle license.

But I don’t love riding the way John does. Before I got my license, I used to ride on the back of his bike, which we rode as far east as Maine and as far west as Idaho. One year we rode all the way around Lake Superior. Spectacular trips.

I used to take pictures back there. Sing songs in my head, do a lot of thinking. Get really bored. Every once in a while I’d look down at the pavement as it whizzed by beneath our feet. One false move and we’re down and it’s all over, I’d think. Then I’d look back up and try to forget about it.

Gary and I talk more about the people he has rescued over the years along the sides of various roads: stranded RVs, broken-down motorcycles, stalled cars. People from all over.

“Just last week I took a guy to the same Harley dealership I’m taking you to,” he says.

“You must see a lot,” I say.

He can’t even form the words and shakes his head instead. He gathers himself and tells me about the road rage, excessive speed, cutting across lanes, cell phones, texting, impaired driving, accidents.

“Truck as big as this, you’re up high,” he says. “You see everything.”

He tells me about a woman who broke down on the freeway he went to help.

“She was in her car when I pulled up behind her and threw on my red flashing lights. A car went around me, but I guess he didn’t see her when he pulled back over. He ran right into her. She died instantly.”

He runs his hand over his head. “Forty-one years old. Two kids, the same age as mine.”

We don’t say much after that.

The problem with my bike turns out to be minor: loose battery cables. On our way back to Milwaukee, I glance at the pavement passing beneath me. I am not anxious to the point where I pose a threat to myself or others on the road. But I am always respectful of the fact that anything can happen, anywhere, anytime. Bike or not. A point driven home to me two and a half years ago when my best friend Greg died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Then again last fall when my mom died ten weeks after her cancer diagnosis. Then again every time I get on my motorcycle.


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.”