Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Smell of Sawdust -- My Father's 100th Birthday

When I was a kid in Ohio, we lived just a few miles from the runway of the Canton-Akron airport. We used to make fun of our father, who’d stop whatever he was doing every time a plane went over. He’d look up and invariably utter, “Isn’t that amazing?” We thought his unsophisticated awe was embarrassing. We, after all, were kids of the Sputnik age.

Our father never quite got comfortable with a telephone, either. He’d jump whenever it rang and hesitate before picking it up as if it were a poisonous snake. While he died before the era of a PC on every desk, computers likely would have flummoxed him.

But lately I’ve been missing the stubborn old coot. He would have turned 100 today, and even though he and I tangled endlessly through the years over everything from dancing to the GOP, I’ve begun to think that the world is deeply poorer without men like him. I wish he were back, with his contrarian self-sufficiency and plethora of skills.

My father was born on a farm in Central Indiana. In 1907 they had no cars, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing. The first house he remembered burned to the ground. He grew up in a punishing seasonal cycle of efforts to keep the farm afloat: a few cattle, horses, chickens and hogs, about 80 acres of corn and alfalfa. Once he was bitten by a rabid mutt and had to take the train to Indianapolis a dozen times for painful shots in the stomach – a terror that filled his adult nightmares and fueled a lifelong fear of dogs. There was not much fun. It was a crushingly difficult life and he craved adventure and aimed to escape. At 18 he rode the rails to North Dakota to work another harvest for a German farmer – a journey that morphed into an epic family myth. But he came home after just one season to his own extended family. A mix of Quakers and Nazarenes, they were opinionated and devout, and they encouraged him when he received the call to the ministry. Halfway through divinity school in the depths of the Depression, he had to drop out when his father was hit and killed by a car in front of their farm on Route 40. The family struggled to survive but lost their land, a crisis that plagued my father with grief and guilt for the rest of his life.

Eventually, though, he did become a minister in a succession of parishes in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. In one of his assignments, he was a “circuit rider” among four small churches in the Coshocton County, Ohio villages of Nellie, Blissfield, Layland and Shepler. He bought a motor scooter to travel between them, not always avoiding ice, floods on Killbuck Creek, turkey vultures on road kill and slow-moving tractors.

I’ve often called him “fundamentalist” for want of a better word, but he was also an intellectual, poring over original Greek and Hebrew texts for his sermons and even reading Saul Bellow and John Updike to try to understand the secular world. He studied the theologians Reinhold Neibuhr and Martin Buber. One of his favorite writers was the Quaker Elton Trueblood.

In 1950, concerned about not owning any land as they moved from church to church, my dad and mom scraped together a few hundred dollars for a single acre of Ohio land. It had problem drainage so my father brought in topsoil and designed and installed an elaborate system of drainage pipes. He drew up plans for a small house and built it from the foundation up, doing the masonry for a stone fireplace. He planted a modest orchard of pear, plum and apple trees. And then there was the garden – a quarter acre of potatoes, melons, tomatoes, strawberries, corn and beans that kept our family healthily fed for years. He was self-sufficient and shrewd.

For fun, he started designing wall “sconces” to hold candles and antique oil lamps. His favorite woods were cherry, knotty pine, wormy chestnut and walnut, and there was nothing that roused his passions more than a pile of seasoned lumber. Forever scarred by the Depression, he paid cash for everything, and it turned out that his sconces were also puzzle boxes, with secret compartments where we eventually found astonishing rolls of greenbacks he’d squirreled away. While he was suspicious of “art,” he created it, including a screen carved with grape leaves, the symbol of plenty, for one of his churches. The trustees, scandalized by such idolatry, made him take it out: he and my mother used it as a headboard for years. (I wrote about that notorious "raredos" here months ago. )

The other day I tried to tell my students that writing was like building a house. But before I’d gotten very far, I realized they weren’t getting my point.

On a hunch, I asked, “How many of you have ever built anything?’ Only one lone hand went up.

It hit me hard that they haven’t grown up like I did – with the smell of sawdust never far off, the apple trees tended with care, and boxes and jars of fresh beans and corn frozen and canned for the winter. My father left me with many gifts, but today it also feels like something rare and irreplaceable is gone.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Made It

It's official -- 50,335 words.

And probably less than halfway to Novel #2. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience -- thanks to Jim Anderson, Dave Larsen, Janelle Wiess, my NaNo buddies -- our daily emails to each other were inspiring and motivating. Special thanks to our beloved colleague Cathy Akers-Jordan, our ardent supporter and statistician. And to Stephanie Roach, who gave us all NaNo Iron-On Badges!

Oh! And thanks to Ted, who laid a new black MacBook on me in the middle of the month (my birthday, a day on which I wrote 2,000 words thank you very much) and who demanded to hear what I'd written, and who understood his response, invariably, should be "Great stuff!" no matter what.

And finally, here's to the joy of making sentences, day after day. As our other colleague, Scott Russell, said the other day, "I write because I like to." It's been fun.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ten Pound Hairball, a Coney Killer, a Cleaver and a Combine

Okay, I'm not kidding, I just heard a "report" on CNN about a woman who had a 10-pound HAIR BALL removed from her stomach. I swear, they even had a photo of it. How could Tony Harris keep a straight face? How could this happen? Was she eating it? Did she ever make any of those "ack-ack-ack" sounds my old cat Tater used to make when he'd get a (comparatively) petite furball caught in his gullet? Oh, man I'm glad I'm at least four hours from my Thanksgiving dinner. What a gross out.

Guess it's a Slow News Day.

And not only that, how about that "coney island" shooter in Lincoln Park (Okay, let's just say it's Detroit since Dee-Twah has just been named the "most dangerous city in America" by Congressional Quarterly. So, Kastroit Mydini went in through the back door of the Dix Coney Island, dressed, one of the survivors said, like "The Marlboro Man" in a long black coat and cowboy hat. He pulled out an AK47 and shot two people, killing the cook, Shpetim Maliqoski and wounding a waitress. The story seemed complicated -- he was looking for his ex-girlfriend, apparently; the cook's involvement is murky.

To take the story straight into Raymond Carver country, Mydini then fled in his sister's Lexus and, after a chaotic police chase, ran into a 60,000 pound combine harvesting sunflower seeds. Mydini was dead at the scene. In what was left of the trunk, police found the AK47, three samurai-style swords, a meat cleaver, a hatchet, a carving knife and two fake handguns.

Meat cleaver? FAKE handguns? Who, as I often tell my students, needs fiction? Apparently the decision by our august Supreme Court to consider the D.C. handgun ban is just the tip of the iceberg of our national insanity. What else will they need to consider to rescue us from our absurdities and pathologies?

In case you're wondering how I know all this fabulous information (coneys, combines and fake handguns are just about enough to make my day, so to speak), Ted and I are sitting in the Northwest Airlines World Club at Detroit Metro airport awaiting our connecting flight to Portland ME for Thanksgiving. We're staying in the Captain Daniel Stone Inn and hoping Augustine, the major domo of the adjoining eatery, will save us some stuffing and cranberry sauce. So far, it's a fun day. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Putting Hope on With Our Shoes

I woke up today, my birthday, with a keen sense of delight. My husband was next to me in our big brass bed, the world outside was bathed in warm late autumn sun, and gold leaves from the silver maples on Maxine Street swirled around like gold leaf (ah!) in the air and on the street. Most of my birthdays for the past 58 years have been brown, gloomy and rainy. This was a rare pleasure.

It is easy to despair -- lord knows there is ample reason. The dark side of life certainly threatens and looms, sometimes taking over everything.

But today I am happy.

With only two more years to go until my seventh decade, the simplest way to describe my mood on the morning of my 58th birthday is to say "phew, I've made it. I'm still alive." And then my husband nuzzled me and gave me a kiss. Who can stay glum in the face of a morning kiss? This is more than just surviving. This is the 99.9th percentile of contentment.

I rolled over and turned on NPR, another of my daily rituals. The first thing I heard was a commentary by "Speaking of Faith" host Krista Tippett. Its tagline was "Deep gladness meets deep need," and here is some of what she said:

"Our emerging national conversation about sustainability has a decidedly "eat your spinach" tone. We're steeling ourselves to enter the realm of sacrifice and penance. But as I've explored ethics and meaning in American life these past few years, I've been struck by the heightened sense of delight and beauty in lives and communities pursuing a new alignment with the natural world.

Innovation and sustainability often begins, I've found, with people defining what they cherish as much as diagnosing what is wrong. I think of Majora Carter. The cutting-edge program she founded, Sustainable South Bronx, began when she and that people of that borough began to reclaim their riverfront for refreshment and play.

I think also of the author Barbara Kingsolver, who found in a year of sustainable eating that when it comes to food, the ethical choice is also the pleasurable choice. And she says that as we face the grand ecological crisis of our time, one of our most important renewable resources is hope. We simply have to put it on with our shoes every morning."

I loved that this was the first thing I heard on the morning of my birthday.

With the temperature in the mild fifties, I set out to walk to work. On the way, I stopped to talk to Ray and Nancy Sinclair, who are building a beautiful entryway on a house between Calumet and Court. I enjoy watching Ray's progress -- it is a pleasure to see the work of any master craftsman, and he and I have known each other, superficially but fondly, for 20 years. And on the bridge between Chavez and the UMF campus, I ran into Nic Custer, one of the talented offspring of the Custer family of East Village Magazine, and again it was enjoyable to stop and chat before moving on to work. My 26-year history with this town, the warmth of long association with good people, was deeply satisfying to me today. And, of course, it's simply wonderful to stop and chat.

As I consider my life over the past year, enjoying the beauties of the harbor at San Pedro, and cherishing the loveliness of my neighborhood here in Flint, my rich life with my students, my marriage to Ted, I am deeply grateful. And I pledge to put on hope with my shoes every morning.

Friday, November 09, 2007

NaNoWriMo Second Week Blues

Chris Batey, the duke of NaNoWriMo, predicted it would happen: the first week's exuberance fades fast and even though I'm at 17,000 words, the daily grind is already taking its toll. An email communique from eensybeensyspider, maven of the Flint NaNoWriMo group, urgently advised serious hydration. My UMF NaNo buddies and I are cranking it out, baby -- about 65,000 words among us so far -- there's a little novel right there. Our characters are already talking to each other, just as we are beginning to mumble to ourselves. I may be panhandling for MD-40 money by the time this is over. In fact, I'm only writing this now to avoid the empty screen -- I haven't written a NaNoWriMo word yet today.

What the hell. It's all about quantity. So I'm signing off for now to go shovel words into another boiler. As the saying goes, with a mound of horseshit this big there's gotta be a pony in there somewhere. I've got a single bottle of Heineken Dark at my side, and I'm cranking up the iTunes jams. Bye for now.

Wimpy Congress Finally Stands Up, but...

So, it's a good thing Congress finally got enough cojones to override GWB's veto of the water bill, since as Robert Hass said last year in his Green Arts visit to Flint, water is likely to be what we'll fight the next war over.

But does anybody else find it unsettling that it had to be water that finally got Congress together, and not health care for poor kids? Who are these people running our country?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Talk about yer time whiplash. Over the weekend, I realized that almost-mayor Dayne Walling was seven years old when I arrived in Flint. And now, I'll be in my sixties when The Don's new term is up. Man, that's a frigging lifetime -- between Walling's childhood and my looming senescence. And I will have spent it all in Flint.

I think it's time for a reststop in San Pedro. I feel timeless there, when I can sit on the hillside and watch the harbor. There, it seems like nothing's moving -- not even the clock -- except for the container ships, plowing like giant rhinos through the water.

Dayne Walling's Horoscope for 11/7/07

According to his MySpace page, our sadly defeated challenger is a Pisces. Here's his horoscope for today:

"There is a dynamic change that's building, but it may take days or even weeks for the direction to become clear. What's most important for you now is to trust in the process rather than in any one aspect of your life. Don't assume anything; wait a few days to see where all this is going."

Hang in there, Dayne!

Flint's Dashed Hopes -- Out with the Trash

While I'm not a particularly political person, events occasionally conspire to rouse me, and in several cases, I've allowed -- even welcomed -- a sign to go up in my front yard. There was Gore/Lieberman (what a quaint and uncomfortable memory -- can any of us actually stomach that Lieberman was on that ticket, now that he's turned into a Republican?) and then, of course, there was Kerry/Edwards. I didn't want to throw out those artifacts of hope -- tossing them on the curb with my weekly bag of ArtVan ads and Lean Cuisine boxes seemed like bad voodoo, bad karma, giving up. So I put them in the garage, where they're gradually getting crisscrossed with spider leavings, their bold fonts fading.

And now, of course, there's the sign for Dayne Walling, the plucky Flint native and Rhodes scholar who missed being elected mayor of my city last night by fewer than 600 votes.

Actually, I never got a sign -- I asked for it twice, and I donated more to young Dayne than I've ever given to any other campaign or candidate, but they never got me one. Maybe that's a sign, so to speak, of why they didn't squeeze out the votes they needed, but I didn't really care. There were 18 Walling signs on two blocks of my street the day before the election, and none for the incumbent, Don "I ain't changin' nothin" Williamson. Half of the folks who bothered to vote yesterday -- the people who want recycling, art, music, more jobs, a clean Flint River, professional and imaginative city management, the people tired of Flint's history of violence, abandonment, cronyism and, well, municipal idiocy -- are in a funk today, in a hangover of dashed hopes, once again.

On a trip to Ann Arbor several years ago, Ted and I bought a blue and white sign from MichiganPeaceWorks that said, simply and assertively, PEACE. It stood stolidly in my tulip bed through several cycles of Michigan humidity, pounding rainstorms, freezes, thaws and snowstorms. Finally noticing it was a looking a bit disheveled around the edges, I decided it was time to retire it. Yes, I saw the symbolism; waiting for peace is a trial of patience guaranteed to outlast mere laminated cardboard on wobbly rusting legs.

So, that sign's propped up in the garage, now, too. I know, I know, change takes time. There's always an opportunity for a new plan. But today I'm not ready for that. Today I'm just pissed off. And today I'm thinking, maybe this is the week to put all my naive hopes out with the trash.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sorry night for Flint

This stupid, stupid town has deprived itself of grace once again.

For all of us who've hung on here year after year hoping for a break from corruption and vulgarity, and who've wondered if we dared to dream that our city could find a path to something new and fresh, tonight is a damn depressing night.

I'm going to bed.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Word Fiends and Word Friends

Yesterday in the ochre light of late afternoon on the first day of Standard Time, I put a bottle of Bushmills in my backpack and walked up to the East Village Magazine office to proofread my November column. There the indefatigable Gary Custer was hard at work amidst his rock piles of old issues and abandoned out of date computers. (It's a good thing we don't have earthquakes around here -- Gary would be at risk of getting buried alive by his own opus). His bike was propped against one of the piles: Gary leaves a very small carbon footprint. His remarkable beard was even bushier than usual and his concentration was finely honed. From the crammed back room an announcer called a football game. Cheers periodically erupted. Gary cleared a spot on a table and brought me a cup for my bracing two fingers -- he declined to join me, preferring to keep a clear head until the mag goes to press. Good man. We debated whether my column should begin with the word "Let's" or "Let us" and whether we could get the word "cornucopia" all on one line. Changed one "like" to "as" to keep things proper. There are few things more fun to me than this -- a shot of Bushmills and close reading of the clean page and its latest Patty Warner image. To me it's a deeply satisfying process, and participating in Gary's idiosyncratic and passionate devotion to his work is one of my life's great pleasures these days. He's been at this exacting labor of love for 31 years. His first issue was July 3, 1976. I hope he gets to have a few sips of that Bushmill's soon.

NaNoWriMo is a roller coaster. Cranked out my requisite words this weekend and felt a bit possessed. Writing one scene brought me to tears, and at a certain point one of my characters demanded to speak, resulting in a 1,000 word section in his voice. This is wild. One, I've never written in a man's voice and two, I thought the damn thing was gonna be in my usual first-person thinly-veiled autobiographical voice. It's unnerving.It's fun, though, swapping messages with my fellow word fiends, Dave, Jim, Janelle and Cathy. Dave amusingly reported a "huge, hairy lumberjack" has lumbered (ha ha) into his story. Can't wait to read it!

The analogy of what's going on is that I'm putting all the puzzle pieces on the table...there are a growing number of pieces, but it will be a long time before I start putting them together on the tabletop. Five days into it, it's still fun. Only 25 more days to go. Gulp.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Hoping for a Smart Kid Mayor

I want my town to have a new mayor. In all my 26 years in this often stupid city, our succession of mayors has been not the least of our embarrassments. The current guy, Don Williamson, Daddy Warbucks rich and vulgar by nature (he used to go around town wearing a red, white and blue hardhat) is a smoke-filled-room ward boss type from the last century, glorying, like W., in his garbled grammar and folksy tyranny.

And his challenger, Dayne Walling, is a young kid who grew up only three or four blocks from here -- a Central High School graduate who got a Rhodes Scholarship, went to Oxford, and then came back to Flint with the confounding notion of running for mayor. He's only in his early 30s with a smart and pretty wife and two kids.

I want him to win. I've never gotten involved in local politics before, but this time I've found myself clicking on his "contribute" button several times. And tonight I walked (how lovely to walk) to a reception for our Congressman, the indefatigable Dem scion Dale Kildee, at Dayne Walling's home. It was fun. I know his mother -- I'm at that age now where she and I could hug and I could say, "You did good, Reba, I knew you'd make a good kid" and he could come up and tolerate us saying how he'd better make his mother proud before he turned away to hustle some union guy. I'd like to think there's a chance for grace and class and maybe even, real innovation in this post-industrial town bisected by its curving brown river. I hope this plucky kid wins.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

First Night: The Case of the Missing Purse

With my previously banked startup cache, I'm up to 3,910. It's a different way than I've ever written anything -- what's liberating about it is the express freedom to simply write, keep writing, and write some more, without stopping to edit, judge, fret. What came out tonight offered a few discoveries, but like a momma cat who just gave birth, I'm feeling secretive and protective. Tried to get on the NaNo site but it was apparently being barraged with first-nighters, so I'll use this spot instead (along with Cathy's cute contribution of an office chart for all four of us NaNoWriMo freaks -- thanks, Cathy.)

Amusing start to my NaNoWriMo life. Had to work late -- till 6:45 p.m. today -- and when I got ready to come home, looking forward to my two hours or so at the computer, I realized I didn't have my purse. I quickly deduced I'd left it in another campus building at an earlier meeting, and after Safety sent an officer to check the room I'd been in, they called back and said it wasn't there. I retraced my steps, frantic, thinking about all the credit cards, checks, and my low-tech but much thumbed and beloved address book. When I got to the other building to see for myself, it was locked up for the night. So I pounded back to my office and begged Safety to let me back in to see for myself. And raced back a second time. A tolerant officer let me in the building and we looked together -- no purse, much unladylike cursing. All I could think of was, DAMN, what about NaNoWriMo? Does this ruin my very first night of November writing? Then, out of desperation, I made him let me in to the adjacent Advising Center (an office I'd once spent many long years in, incidently) to see if anybody'd dropped it off and it was lurking on a secretary's desk. And then I made him let me go into the Director's office, who'd been at the meeting with me. AND THERE IT WAS!

When I finally got home, my purse securely swinging from my left shoulder, I was still in an adrenaline rush, and I brought that with me to my first night of NaNoWriMo. The 1800 words for tonight flowed out fairly speedily. I was so grateful to be writing instead of calling credit card companies and loathing my stupid self!

So there you go, a happy ending. Shouldn't every story have a happy ending? Isn't this nervewracking "missing purse" event somehow just the right kind of ultimately harmless drama to propel my first night of story telling?

I am wondering about happy endings. Humans really don't have happy endings. We get old and die. Or at least, die. But I'm still feeling exuberant, so I don't want to let it stand there...I'm banking on some happiness between now and the day I die -- the "aho lahi" as the Tongans used to call it, the "Big Day." I don't know if my novel is going to have a happy ending. But the mood I'm in now, with my reclaimed purse hanging beautifully on the back of a chair in my bright and lovely kitchen, is that I think it will. I think it will.

NaNoWriMo Napalm Flying

So this is it: November 1. Today I'll write 1700 words. But not here. I've got a file started that's labeled "Nanowrimo," the quarky acronym for National Novel Writing Month. I've already banked 2,000 words in there, which isn't many considering that's just a couple hundred words more than I've pledged to write EVERY DAY for the next 30 days. The guy who dreamed up this wacky stunt wrote a book called "No Plot, No Problem" and all 90,000 of us who've signed up this year have promised not to even THINK about revising what we write. That's for December. Or the rest of my natural born life. For now, the goal is quantity. Supposedly the novel will magically begin to reveal itself. Why not? Writing is the one constant of my life, a beloved meditation and non-chemical Prozac. It makes my brain feel good and keeps me balanced and happy. And I'm trying to kick myself beyond Night Blind and into something new.

Want to know what it's about? None of your business. Ala Anne Lamott, I've picked all the doubting voices by their tiny mouse tails, put them in a jar, and screwed the lid down tight. They're in there squeaking and trying to get out, but I can't hear them.

I'm embarking on this crazy project with three of my English Department colleagues -- Jim, Dave and Janelle. I wonder what kind of shape we'll be in by Nov. 30. I predict blubbering and aphasic, with little calluses on the tips of our achy typing fingers.

Today's NaNoWriMo inaugural pep talk came via email from Bigtime Famous Novelist Tom Robbins, who wrote one of my favorite novels from the Seventies, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Among other cleansing admonitions, he wrote:

"When you sit down to begin that novel of yours, the first thing you might want to do is toss a handful of powdered napalm over both shoulders---so as to dispense with any and all of your old writing teachers, the ones whose ghosts surely will be hovering there, saying such things as, "Adverbs should never be...", or "A novel is supposed to convey...", et cetera. Enough! Ye literary bureaucrats, vamoose! Rules such as "Write what you know," and "Show, don't tell," while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works."

Now, I'm a writing teacher myself and I've railed against adverbs and shouted "Write What You Know" myself many times. So I'm tossing away my own chestnuts, not to mention the voices of numerous writing gurus of my own. Hey, good riddance.

So here goes. I'm flinging the napalm -- and all good sense -- over my shoulder. Yeah, baby, I'm gonna be a word machine.