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.

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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.