Safety First!

*Photo taken by Biffy at the Willow Street house shortly after the birth of my third child.


Visions of a Semi-Vegan

I told A. it's a good thing we live in Wisconsin, where most people aren't too certain what it means to be vegan so there's not much chance that anyone will be offended when A. announces, as he has been recently, that he is a semi-vegan.  But I suggest he tone it down when we get near Madison or Ashland or Bayfield where some actual vegans might live.  "Half-starved" is the adjective A. affectionately uses most often to describe his vegan brethren.

"But can't anybody be semi-vegan no matter what they eat?" I ask as A. reaches for a piece of sausage pizza.

"No," he says, frowning.  "Definitely not."


Profile of a Reader


When she saw us moving into the house across the alley, she knew she had a project on her hands. But it was more than one crafty woman could handle, so she threw a party and recruited some help. She gave us beautiful things she made and delicious food she cooked that she claimed no one in her own household would eat.  NDL had a keen eye for garden ecology and keep us updated on frog sightings, mushroom blooms, frost warnings.  So I could think of no better person to investigate the astonishingly large pile of dung that appeared on our sidewalk one Saturday morning.  We had heard that someone in the neighborhood, coming home at some remarkably late hour, had reported seeing a black bear wandering near our houses.  We stood over the dung pile, speculating.  Had the neighbor who reported seeing the bear been out to a Friday night fish fry followed by polka dancing at the Elk's Club where perhaps the Leinenkugels were on special?  In such a state could this neighbor have mistaken a dog or even a large raccoon for a black bear?  We prodded the dung with a stick.  We did an informal survey of passers by, some whom we knew, some whom we didn't.  Opinions were split.  I blocked off the dung pile with bricks so no one would step in it, using the excuse of our investigation to not clean it up quite yet. It wasn't until later in the afternoon that NDL confessed that it didn't look a thing like black bear dung.  By then, some anonymous and kindhearted neighbor (who evidently knew we needed all the help we could get) had cleaned up the mess.  I'm not pointing any fingers, but it was just the type of generous move that NDL specialized in.


World View

When I was a very young child, before I went to school, my mom would take me to run errands.  I knew, from logical deduction, that the entire world was a great stage play put on for my benefit. When I couldn't see them, the actors in the play, i.e. all the world's people, were on break, waiting until I arrived.  It was God's job to warn the actors when I was near so they could take their places and pretend to be going about their false lives so that I would believe the world was vast and filled with strangers whose own lives were more important to them than mine.  I imagined that before I turned a corner, everyone was slumped against counters and walls, smoking cigarettes and quietly discussing the meaning of my life.

I desperately wanted to catch them in the act.  I hid behind my mom's skirt and popped out right as we turned a corner, or I dashed ahead of my mom hoping to surprise everyone who would turn to see me and gasp, cigarettes dangling from their fingers as they scrambled to take their positions.  But they were very good at their jobs and forever evaded detection, convincingly pretending that they didn't even know I was there except for a few old ladies whose job it was to lean down and coo at me about how much they loved my curly hair.  Other old ladies said it was too bad that curly hair was wasted on a little boy, since my mom insisted on cutting my hair short and I insisted on wearing my brothers' hand-me-downs.  "I'm a girl," I told them.  And they pretended to be surprised by that, even though they already knew everything there was to know about me, just as I knew the truth about them, because I could smell the intriguing scent of freshly smoked cigarettes on their breath.



Before I learned a foreign language, when I only knew my own, I thought that in learning another language, the foreign language would begin to sound more and more like my own.  But what I found to be true was that the foreign language only began to sound more and more like itself, which continued to remain foreign, no matter how familiar it became.

While living in foreign countries, learning foreign languages, I had the strongest desires to read and write only in my own language.  It was in reading and writing in my own language that I could escape the sense of skittering around on the surface of understanding and experience the heat of sentences burrowing deep.

Once, walking down the street in a foreign city, there appeared a bookstore, and in I went. But all the books were in a language other than my own, and being so far away from home, I wanted only books that were in my own language.  The longer I was away and the more I learned to speak in the foreign language, the closer to my own language I became.

In the bookstore, I found a book on a forgotten bottom shelf, a musty and stained little book.  It was a book of blank pages.  I immediately felt a great connection with the book.  I felt the purchase of this book was very significant, and I went to a cafe and immediately began to write in the book a story about purchasing the book.  The story went nowhere, as they so often do.


What I Learned Today from Wikipedia

When he was a boy, Chopin sat near the piano whenever his mother played and "wept with emotion."


Return of The Fear

The Fear is lurking near


Never more

Will inspiration propose

The befitting strand of words

The decorous curve of line

To enounce

That The Fear has returned.



“We face the same challenge with each new story, novel, poem, play, screen play, or essay:  given subject X, or premise Y, or image Z, there are an infinite number of directions in which the work could go.  There is no reason to think one direction is inherently better, more artisitically valid, than all the others.  Yet we must choose -- for each individual piece -- just one.”

Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination


Thank You, MLK

Perhaps our dreams are smaller in scale, more personal than those dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Perhaps we have filled our lives with other things and crowded out our dreams.  Perhaps we think it's futile to dream or have simply forgotten how.

But if we stay still today for a while with his words, if we pause and let them churn, if we reflect on the experience of being, perhaps the business of our lives, the chatter in our minds, the lists of things to do, for a moment, dissipate.  And if we stay alert and listening, perhaps we can feel the freedom that Dr. King dreamed of, the freedom that is owned by no one and shared by all.

And what better gift to give ourselves, our heroes, our children, what better gift to give to family and strangers alike, than the freedom to experience all our oneness and all our diversity.  Let us not fear how behind our curtains and masks and temperaments and judgements we are all the same.  Let us celebrate that we are all woven from the same elements, spun from the same stars, erected with the same energy.  Rich and poor, fat and thin, all shades of skin, with no exception, we are each a part of all, who we most revere and who we most revile.  Let us teach ourselves to cherish not just our own lives and our friends' lives and our neighbors' lives, but to cherish the lives of those we will never meet, those we can not understand, those we reckon are enemies.

These are not easy dreams, like the dreaming of material things.  These are dreams that require vigilance and dedication, dreams that require us to examine what we have long taken for granted, dreams that require us to change.  But as we learn to accept without judging, to love without exceptions, we will begin to understand the power we each possess, how our every thought, every action, every choice, effects the freedom of all.

Not just today, but everyday, this is the true work of our lives.  Not just today, but everyday, this is the most generous gift we can give.  Let us start today.  And let us never finish.


Dropped My Daughter Off At Preschool

Walked home to find our sidewalk and the neighbor's the only ones still unshoveled.  Decided to shovel then decided not to.  No mail.  Too early.  Kicked open the door, kicked it back closed.  Ran upstairs to check email.  Wandered back down.  Noticed plants need watering.  Decided to water plants.  Instead put water in the kettle for coffee.  Picked up a book on the table and read a short piece about Georgia O'Keeffe being a hard woman, hard in the sense of not taking any shit from anyone, especial men in the art business.  They went to Paris, she went to New Mexico.  New Mexico where we lived a block away from an arroyo which was not a river unless it rained really hard which it didn't very often.  In one direction along the arroyo was an old horse in a pen, in the other direction, a place where people drove across the arroyo.  The banks there were reinforced with smashed cars stacked into the dry earth.  How different things would be if we had stayed, which we almost did, but didn't.  Or maybe things wouldn't be different at all.  Phone rang.  Answered it before even deciding whether or not to answer it.  A recorded message from the electric company, apologizing for the power outage last night due to a car accident causing 4,327 homes to lose power.  Decided the recorded message sounded sincere enough, for a robot. Wondered if I should now finish watching Rashomon which was interrupted when the power went out.  Kettle whistled past the point of whistling before I stood, turned off the burner, cleaned out the coffee press, ground the coffee, poured the water.  Realized plants still need watering. Carried coffee pot and favorite mug upstairs.  Seeing desk, remembered husband's late night clutter check when he challenged me to clean off my desk, at least two nights ago.  Maybe more.  Hard to remember.  Checked email.  Opened several documents.  Immediately closed them.  Tried to decide what to work on.  Decided to clean off desk.  Felt immediately exhausted.  Poured more coffee instead.  Checked email.  Opened and closed more documents.  Realized there is nothing worth working on.  Ate some chocolate.  Decided that Georgia O'Keeffe never had nothing to work on.  Decided that if I clear my desk and water the plants and shovel and finish watching Rashomon that then I might have something to work on.  But then it would be time to leave again.  Listened to the neighbor shoveling his walk.  Decided not to shovel.  Drank more coffee.  Etc.


Profile of a Reader

Honey Bee.

Honey Bee was astutely aware of when I was just about to lose it. She would appear in the alley to announce that there were some strange bugs hiding in her garden (plastic eggs disguised as ladybugs and bees, filled with jelly beans) and the kids would all run off in search of them, just in time to save them from abuse.  Not only did Honey Bee often haul our yard rakings to the dump and snowblow our walk, but she also rescued a certain curly headed three year old from high up her white pine tree when the mother was no where to be found.


American Idol

I'm sure it doesn't surprise anyone to hear that at one time I used to carry a well worn paperback of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my pocket.  I called it my bible.  It feels a little embarrassing now to admit that, though I don't know why it is that certain stages of life that we have passed through, embarrass us in retrospect, just as, I suppose, certain stages of life that we haven't passed through yet, do the same.  I had never read a book like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek before, and it leveled me.  I lay on the grass in James Madison Park searching the sky, wishing I had written it.

I gave a copy to a friend of mine, a tall friend with beautiful hair who carried a very large backpack everywhere he went, as if at any moment he might stop playing frisbee and decide to study.  He was the guy I reversed directions for, crossing the street to fall in stride with him.  He talked to the most odd people and always made me laugh.  What better deal was there than that?  But it wasn't just me.  Half a dozen girls had already given him Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  I wonder if he ever read it?  I'll have to remember to ask him tonight when he comes home for dinner.

I once wrote Annie Dillard a letter.  Talk about embarrassing.  I'm glad I didn't make a copy.  I'm sure I went on and on and on, hoping that she would see in my pudgy prose some fine seed of talent and scoop me up as her understudy.  Much later I remember cringing as I read that she gets a hundred letters a week from people (all young women?) who have just read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the first time and were leveled by it, lying in some city park staring at the sky wishing they had written it, only to have the brilliant idea to write to Ms. Dillard and tell her all about it.  Somehow I have the impression, whether from her strange website I once found with a horrible picture of her (meant to scare us off, I believe, which worked on me) or whether from an interview, or from something I made up, that she suffers under the crushing weight of these letters.  She'd rather we didn't write.  Just think how depressing!  Bucketfuls of earnest young women, tumbling onto her doorstep every day just because she happened to write the very thing to ignite the imaginations of every college girl who has ever taken a walk in the woods.

Needless to say, I did not get a letter back.


Voice Mail

This is Joanna's father who is reading her blog right now and the picture of this singer is a hell of a picture! That is just great.  Except, who is this Christine Granatella?  I hope it will be in the next blog and it will be a very interesting story about this singer who was depicted by my daughter in a terrific picture.  Goodbye.


Who is this Christine Granatella?

A.  Ella Fitzgerald reborn as a Wisconsin white girl.

B.  I have no idea.

C.  My alter-ego.

D.  A mom I met on the playground.  

E.  All of the above.

F.  None of the above.

G.  E and F

H.  Neither E nor F


New Year's Resolution

"Whatever level we may be at as musicians - student or professional - we all should take the time to dream of where we would like to go in our playing, changes in sound, development of technique, pieces to learn and/or ambitions to realize.  Thinking about the next days and weeks or the next decade, the important thing is to release the imagination, visualize goals, and harness the discipline, self-belief and drive needed to pursue our dreams.  If I have been effective in getting one point across, I shall feel the efforts of creating the learning method and writing this book will have been well worth the time and energy spent, and that point is: the farthest flights of imagination can be accomplished!"

Robert Dick in the Afterword to "Circular Breathing for the Flutist"


Day of the Kings

A's birthday comes at an awkward time, when we are all worn out from Christmas and New Year's celebrating.  One year, he got a big bag of sunflower seeds and a homemade card.  This makes our son nearly cry to think of it.  Still, it doesn't mean we've come up with anything better this year.  Here it is, the morning of his birthday and we have neither bag of sunflower seeds nor homemade card.

Back when we first moved to Chippewa Falls, a new friend gave us a big roll of newsprint that we still use nearly every birthday to make a banner.  Last year A's mom called on A's birthday and got a hold of me.  I lamented the fact that I had nothing special for A's birthday, and she said well at least there's a banner, which there wasn't.

This morning there were an unprecedented three banners, though not because we were three times as thoughtful, but because the kids can no longer work communally on one.  Usually I try to at least make a special dinner and favorite dessert.  But this year we can't have cake and ice cream nor chicken tikka masala because of A's recent conversion into a self-righteous vegan.  So there goes that idea.  And we blew our wad over the holiday so a babysitter is out.  Maybe I'll make some lentils and check out a movie from the library that we can watch after the kids are in bed.  There's a new documentary about North Korea that I bet A. is going to love.  Maybe not at first.  But he'll get into the groove of it after 15 minutes or so.

Or not.


First Year Teacher, A

I learned from Miss Palmazano, my third grade teacher, that the world is divided into seven continents.  So you can imagine my concern when discovering that the students in the Central African Republic wrongly believed there were only six.  They took great pleasure in correcting me. "Excusez moi, Madame.  Mais vous n'etes pas juste."  I was appalled that they didn't know such a basic fact, that the Ural Mountains divide Europe and Asia into two continents.  I felt fortunate, as I often did in C.A.R., to have come from an enlightened education system.  Miss Palmazano, standing in front of the Mercator projection, slowly running the end of her wooden pointer along the brown ridge that cut through the U.S.S.R., gave me the tingles.

In those days, I didn't so much want to become a teacher as to become those teachers who I studied more carefully than I ever did any book or worksheet.  Each had her own puzzling elegance, the way Mrs. Fieldhaver's eyes drooped when her painted lips smiled, the way Mrs. Peters scowled as she marched down the hall in her wavy soled platform shoes, her shoulders hunched, her hair freshly permed, the way Mrs. Jones twanged the rubber band that was always woven between the fingers of her right hand as she wrote sentences on the overhead projector with her left.

But what I enjoyed most about grade school, even more than watching Tracy Pierce write on the blackboard*, was watching my teachers pass out papers.  Their eyes darted up and down each isle as they fingered the corners of dittos, counting out five, six, seven, to "take one and pass it back." I did a lot of passing out papers, alone in my bedroom on 51st Street, using the dittos of absentee lists my grandmother brought me from Benson High School where she was secretary.**

But all that practice passing out papers didn't help a damn when I found myself, barely 23, on the far side of the world, teaching middle school math and biology in French, a language neither I nor the students had a very firm grasp on.  There were no papers to pass.  I wrote on a crumbling blackboard everything the students were expected to learn, and they copied, a hundred heads bowed with astonishing seriousness over their cahiers.

It was the most formative moment of my two years in C.A.R. when I went to use a friend's latrine to find they were using cahiers as toilet paper.  I tore a sheet from the notebook and wiped my ass with the notes on metamorphosis I'd given the previous term.

Strangely, it didn't occur to me until months after I had returned from Africa how right those students were who I had so sharply judged.  While serving lattes at a crappy French restaurant in San Francisco, it struck me like a slap, the "fact" of the Ural Mountains dividing the European Continent from the Asian Continent was nothing but a racist construct.

*Tracy was the fiercest, wiliest kid in the class and yet he held the chalk so delicately between thumb and forefinger, that when slowly forming his looping letters they were nearly invisible.

**For those of you who don't know, dittos were the precursor to photocopies. Teachers cranked out dittos, the heavy chunk of the churning crank echoing down the wooden hall.  We rejoiced freshly dittoed papers which we pressed to our faces soaking in the warmth and intoxicating smell of the purplish-blue ink.