Not long ago, we had to move my mother-in-law, Marilyn, into an assisted living facility. The place is warmer than the word facility suggests. It’s run by Catholic nuns and a battalion of Slavic women armed with mops and towels over their shoulders to wipe their brows. When I mention the move to others of a certain age, they usually nod in understanding. They know firsthand how hard this can be. They know also about the challenge of dealing with the loved one’s belongings. Their stuff. We talk about estate and garage sales. The many trips to Goodwill. The claiming of particular things by family and friends and neighbors.
I’ve been most fascinated by this last challenge. What items are taken, what becomes a discard. Since I’m mostly retired and not working in the summer, I’ve been the one driving to thrift shops for The Stuff’s final destination after it’s been picked through. No, we don’t want that cup, that paper shredder, that rickety ladder, that Christmas tree. But as I’m loading boxes, I find myself unwilling to part with certain things. Not so much because I want them, but because at one time or another they meant something to Marilyn or her husband, Marty. At least this is what I imagine.
My favorite item I’ve taken is a spatula. Just an ordinary kitchen tool. But I picture Marilyn, who loved to wait on others, poking at wedged potatoes or turning an omelet for Marty, who loved to be waited on. In this sense, they had a pretty darn good marriage! She probably didn’t pay much attention to the utensil in her hand, but I do now, dearly. I imagine the fluid deftness of her movements, the care she attached to what she was making.
When I had to clean my parents’ home two years ago, it’s no surprise that I came away with a couple of similar utensils from their house. I don’t use them often, but when I make taralli, this is what I dig out of the kitchen drawer:
I also took a few dish towels from my mom’s house. I’m reluctant to admit that years ago I stuffed one towel into a mason jar to retain its aroma, reluctant because this strikes me as a little desperate. At the same time, I’m glad to know the jar is downstairs, waiting for me to unseal it one day.
I took a few saint statuettes, too, and have them scattered around my house because I knew what they meant to my parents. I took a large spool of thread and scissors from my father’s tailoring supplies. I can’t bring myself to throw out their canes, though I want to. I spent the winter after they passed wearing my old man’s coat, which I’ve written about before. I took a salad bowl we use often and a bowl for Romano cheese for when guests come over.
Speaking of dish towels, Marilyn had, I’d guess, 200. I imagine her in Montgomery Ward’s back when keeping house was something like a calling for her, browsing through ribbed cotton towels and apple-patterned softer ones, deciding and thinking, Yes, I could use another towel. Did she realize how many she already owned? Would she ever have enough? What did her collection mean to her? I did save four or five of her towels, stuck them under our sink to use, but towels are not that distinct to me, and I’ve already lost track of which ones are hers.
I took some of Marilyn’s jazz CDs, too. When I play one, I imagine the contentment she felt as she sang along, but only when Marty wasn’t home. He was a gifted musician who could not stand his wife’s off-pitch wailing. The irony is that Marty rarely listened to music and probably never played piano, at home, for himself, which probably smacked of work. When he had guests over though, he and that piano came alive. His daughter now has his piano, and I wonder about her sentiments toward this instrument she sees every day.
I also saved a painting of a violin that hanged above the piano, not that Marty probably took much notice of the painting. Still, it was something he took in each day, at some level, and I want to continue to see that same image.
I took a wide sauté pan that no one claimed. My fervent wish: that Marilyn could stand next to me now, warning me about the height of the flame and suggesting when to add oregano and pepper and when to let food simmer undisturbed.
I’ve been wondering about my own things, too. What will my garage sale look like? Which of my things will my family want to keep—or discard without a second thought? Would their choices surprise or appall me? Let’s see, I don’t write in my books, so I doubt that many of my books will be kept in the way I describe here. Besides, there are too many, and most will have to be given away. While I don’t mark up books, I do often write on jumbo note cards that I use as bookmarks. Maybe there’s some random note in one of the books they’ll want to keep? I don’t have a favorite mug, I don’t wear slippers, I don’t feel a particular connection to any kitchen item. I’m glad I won’t have to make these decisions myself.
These legacies of daily life can be powerful, tapping into grief that seems to be right there without notice, or joy or nostalgia or a number of other feelings. But it’s probably best not to think too long on your own things and what they might mean to others someday.
It comes as no surprise that I feel compelled right now to march downstairs to clean our so-called storage room, but also dread.
If you like books, you really need to get to downtown Chicago next weekend, June 7/8. You can find a schedule online, download an app too. And it's all free. Meet writers, shop used books, talk to people at booths, weave in and out of crowds, make a new friend.
I'll be moderating a panel of writers at noon on Saturday at Jones Prep Academy. The writers: Charles Finch, Maya Lang, Joshua Max Feldman. All great writers. And this is their first book. Come out and hear how they did it!
Don’t read any further if you want to see Godzilla without the taint of someone else’s opinions.
My hopes for new movies are always high. On Fridays, when I open to the reviews in the newspapers, I’m a little tentative, rooting to see four stars emblazoned, or even three, my heart sinking if the rating is lower on a flick I’ve been eager to see.
For Godzilla, the Chicago Tribune boasted 3½ stars, and I could already taste the popcorn. But then I turned to the Daily Herald, which rated the movie much more harshly. Ah, I thought, I’ll have to judge for myself, which I do anyway. But now I was wary.
The first hour of the movie works very well, with a range of emotions displayed and an ominous score and decent acting, especially from Bryan Cranston. The set-up is drawn out but done so well that I had no complaints.
Finally, we get a peek at the monster. But it’s not Godzilla. It’s this other radiation-hungry creature, a gargantuan grasshopper looking thing with steely wings, that’s clearly up to no good—well, not really—the creature is simply hungry and doesn’t seem to have any interest in humans at all. For me, this defused the drama, well, dramatically. To save your ass in this world, all you’d have to do is move to an area not so rich in nuclear resources. This is a short-term solution, and you probably wouldn’t survive long anyway, but you wouldn’t have to deal with these giant grasshoppers. And then we find out that there are several of these menaces.
Notice I haven’t even mentioned Godzilla yet. He barely makes an appearance. And when he does, I don’t know where he came from, who he is, if I should buddy up with him or run. I feel more emotion when watching Muppet characters, and I hate the Muppets, most of them anyway (there, I said it; sorry if I offend).
By the end, Godzilla is clearly more friend than foe, but I don’t know why—why, that is, he wants to defend the human race, because if we’re to believe the rest of the movie, the human race has created a mess of the world. In the end, I feel as if I didn’t even see a Godzilla movie. I saw a lot of computer-generated destruction—and that’s getting old—which looks fairly real but left me unmoved.
Much of the above complaints might have been softened by a better human story, but these actors aren’t given much range to work with. The Japanese doctor in particular, who is probably a fine actor, mainly stares just above the camera lens, toward us, with his mouth open in horror and regret. Which pretty much matched my face while heading for the exit.
I need to enter a 12-step program. But I’ll need to start my own because my fix is pretty particular. I’ll call it TA, for Thrift-store Anonymous. Or just T. Not sure I need Anonymous. I’ll need to create my own checklist, I suppose:
1. Do you ever go to more than one thrift store on the same day?
2. How long do you spend there?
3. Do you go alone?
4. Do you eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner from the vending machines at thrift stores?
You get the idea. Actually, I’d need to be even more specific with my program because once I reach the store, my palms sweaty in anticipation and my heart hammering away, I veer toward only one section: the books. Maybe I can call the program TBA, for Thrift-store Books Anonymous. I can imagine the confusion. “You’re going to a TBA meeting? How will you know where…or when?”
Explaining one’s particular obsessions usually falls short. We all understand our own but fail to grasp the pull of anyone else’s. I can’t imagine the need to watch sports every night. Or the impulse to buy new shoes when you already own 8 pairs. But books? It’s like finding a $10 bill on the sidewalk and so for the next ten minutes your eyes keep scanning the ground because you know more cash will appear. There are always more gold nuggets just around the corner.
My latest finds:
A Confederacy of Dunces: John Kennedy Toole / Bella Tuscany: Frances Mayes / Wait Till Next Year: Doris Kearns Goodwin / Sin in the Second City: Karen Abbott / A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Dave Eggers / A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: David Foster Wallace / After the Plague: TC Boyle / All My Best Friends; George Burns / Demian: Herman Hesse / Gang Leader for a Day: Sudhir Venkatesh.
You’re envious, aren’t you?
The books feel like orphans to me. If I already have a particular title, I become an adoption agency and buy for others. Or sometimes I’ll see books with inscriptions that I don’t have much interest in but can’t turn away.
I found these words, at the front of a Studs Terkel book, heartbreaking. The title was not a recent one, so I imagined the recipient being well beyond 70 and maybe gone, the family taking on the heavy task of clearing out her things.
I find the practice of inscribing books a quaint one and was surprised to see these words on a newer title. I found this inside Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath:
I hope Patrick is fine, and if he is, I wonder why he’s giving away books that include a personal message like this.
For the record, I still buy new books, at book stores, because I don’t want them to become extinct. But I’m afraid I’m fighting a losing battle.
Well, I have to go now. Time for my TBA meeting. “My name is Tony, and it’s been…14 hours since my last visit to Goodwill or Savers…”
I don’t ordinarily pair in my mind the characters Captain America and Noah, but I saw both movies that feature them in the last few days and inevitably found parallels.
Both movies deal with mass end-of-world-as-we-know-it destruction that requires superhuman intervention. The odds are stacked against the heroes; yet you know they will prevail in the end. And therein lies the challenge: how to build suspense when the outcome is more or less known.
I’d seen the first Captain America installment and found it clever and well paced and pleasing. I especially liked the creation aspect, how he acquired his powers and how he had to learn to deal with them. This newest flick, in contrast, was a disappointment. His character is more one-dimensional, the plot is more farfetched, and the battles are too digitally enhanced. As with the latest Superman, the brawls occur on city streets, and if the laws of physics exist in this superworld, plenty of innocent bystanders are going to be killed. The problem I have with this: (1) nothing of the sort is ever acknowledged; Captain America and his buddies don’t give these deaths a moment’s consideration, and (2) why should we care more about the survival of one or two main players than the hundreds or thousands of nameless cabbies and pedestrians? Maybe I’m just the Felix Unger of movie-watchers. But the mayhem is too messy and doesn’t match the lofty goals of the guy in the blue tights. (For you younger folk, Felix is the neatnik half of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.)
In Noah, the mass destruction of innocents not only occurs but is central to the plot. Noah, under God’s direction, intends to kill off everyone—or allow it at least—because humans have made such a mess of the world. In this case, since there’s a reason for the callous brutality, the Felix in me gave this a pass, even though the killing is far messier.
I had no interest in seeing Noah after viewing the previews and hearing lukewarm reviews, but the movie works. The beginning is a little slow, but the suspense builds to Biblical proportion, while making you empathetic for the main players. A nice balance.
I’m not a Biblical scholar, so I did wonder about the accuracy—that is, does the story match what you’d find in “Genesis”? As I was trudging out of the movie (trudging is what you do after two hours in the dark, right?) and back toward the ticket window, a husband and wife were debating which movie to see. Husband: “Oh, I thought we were going to see Noah.” Wife: “No, I don’t want to see it because it’s inaccurate.” I was tempted to interrupt and claim that I was in fact a Biblical expert and that the movie was extraordinarily on the money. I’m glad I didn’t because when I got home, I pored through “Genesis,” and found that the movie takes more than a few liberties. Crazy liberties. I didn’t see the movie so I could enhance my Biblical knowledge, but I could understand how the wife wanted to keep certain aspects of the story straight. I can understand how scenes from a movie become fused with the memory of the “real” story. But I did wonder how much of the story she really knew firsthand and not from some picture book—because the movie captured God’s wrath from “Genesis” pretty accurately. I mean, God intends to destroy everything outside the ark. I suspect this would surprise her. And disturb her too. It did me.
This incident probably says more about the ornery sonofabitch I’ve become than anything else.
I saunter up to the bank teller the other day, and before I reach her, she calls out, “How may I assist you?” Which strikes me as formal and a little stiff, which—I know, I know—should not in itself annoy. But she does this every time. Mostly I’m annoyed because I’m approaching with a check made out to me and a deposit/withdrawal slip that I’ve dutifully filled out. In a second she will lay eyes on this slip, which will clearly tell the story on how she can assist me.
“This is all I’ll need today,” I tell her. But I know she has not heard.
She presses a few keys, unlocks that mysterious hidden drawer, and begins to pull out cash. She’s assisting me! She turns to me and counts out bills, then coins. But before she plops down the coins, she says, “And last but not least…” I’m thinking, last AND least. This is one case in which the coins ARE less. This same person who is so concerned about the distinction between may/can, suddenly wants to be chummy. But I ain’t buying. Though I don’t say anything.
Here’s the clincher. She has assisted me. She has been excessively polite. As I’m gathering my bills and coins and receipt, she asks, “Is there anything else I may assist you with?” Why, yes, what a capital idea. Let me return to the counter near the entrance for another deposit slip because that would be the most efficient way for me to conduct business, one transaction at a time.
“No, that’s it.”
“Have a wonderful day,” she tells me.
“Thanks,” I growl.
I’m teaching a Beatles class! I still can’t quite believe, that twice a week, I get to meet with about 40 students at a local community college to teach a Beatles class. Co-teach actually. With author and good pal, Greg Herriges, a founding member of the 70s band Athanor, who is suddenly garnering attention for reissues and new songs, which is remarkable and beyond exciting. You can find info on Greg and his band/books at Herriges.net. What reminded me to finally post something about the class was this Chicago Tribune article that ran today: Beatlemania. The article was also picked up by an international Beatles fan site: Beatlesnews.com. So Paul and Ringo should be reading about us any minute now. To give you some idea of what we do in class, here’s what we recently covered. We devoted an entire class period, about two and a half hours, to the theme of Place. We first analyzed Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey poem, his reverential ode to this peaceful locale in nature he once visited five years prior. Then we read Billy Collins’s parody of Tintern; maybe parody is too strong a word, but his take is much lighter, which provided some relief to Wordsworth’s gravely serious tone. Then we discussed Bruce Springsteen’s My City of Ruins, which became an anthem for NY after 9/11. We finished with a lively discussion of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. Finally, we had students write their own short poems about the place where they grew up. Are you jealous? I’m teaching the class and I’m feeling a little of that. Maybe not quite jealousy. But a feeling of contentment washes over me fairly frequently as the music pours out of these concert speakers we have in class. Before I started teaching the class, I worried that this immersion would dull the music in some way. But the contrary has happened. Slowing down to read each line of Eleanor Rigby or Revolution has only infused the songs with a newness that rekindles my fascination with the magic that is the Beatles. The Tribune article mentions a story that I read in class on our Sergeant Pepper’s day. It’s actually an excerpt from a novel I hope to publish soon (soon is a relative term in publishing; my soon does not resemble theirs in any way.) Anyway (did you see how any way became Anyway? Reminds me of the Beatles song, It Won’t Be Long: “It won’t be long…till you belong to me.)…Anyway, a while ago, the same Chicago Tribune ran that excerpt in their Printers Row Sunday supplement, and they’re offering for sale a collection of the stories they’ve printed these past several months. It’s a pretty impressive list of authors, and I’m honored to be part of that. You can find the collection here: Short Stories from Printers Row. Or you can read the excerpt if you sign up for the Beatles class next term. How lucky am I.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve read about the magic that is Writers Week at Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois.
Twenty years ago, my good pal, Gary Anderson, and I, with a hearty budget of $250, invited a few local writers to speak, convinced a handful of students and teachers to bare their souls on stage, and ran blindly with the idea of celebrating writing. I remember calling teachers the night before, begging them to bring their classes to the auditorium so we could fill more seats. I remember us sheepishly handing $15 checks to writers to reimburse them for transportation expenses. I remember us writing letters to administrators afterward, trying to convince them to extend the week the following year to all periods and not just lunch hours.
Twenty years later, because of generous support from our boosters, our budget runs into the thousands. About 90 students take to the stage each year, along with nearly 20 faculty members—and not all of them are English teachers. Every period, for eight periods, all week, the auditorium in packed. Gary and I have spoken with teachers from other schools across the country, and there are now a dozen or more schools hosting their own Writers Week.
All of this is pretty cool and beyond gratifying. But what had me beaming last week, as I hung around school for WWXX (I recently retired), was this assurance that, with Gary retiring this year, Writers Week will be in able hands.
I feel as if Gary and I have been mowing this lawn for twenty years, and each year the swaths have become greener and lusher, only because so many others have contributed tirelessly, trimming and edging—yes, this has been a community pasture—but we always wondered about now, after we both moved on to graze other pastures (OK, enough with the grassy metaphor already; can you tell I’m aching to see green?), and I couldn’t be more pleased that this simple idea of providing a forum for voices to be heard will continue to thrive. Not merely continue, but thrive, baby. Thank you, Gina. Thank you, Russ. Thank you all who stepped up and who will continue to step up.
If you want to peek at a video archive of WWXX, click HERE.
If you want to read Gary’s blog about WW, it’s HERE.
The Twitter hashtag: #wwxx.
It was 20 years ago today...
Or something like that.
Gary on left.
We haven't changed at all.
If you’re tired of winter already, if you gaze out your front window at great mounds of grungy snow and know that another six inches will fall that day, followed soon after by a thaw that will produce slippery slush, followed by torrents of rain threatening to spark flash floods, followed by ripping 50 mph winds—yes, we had all that this week in the Chicago area—here’s your prescription.
Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, and you need to put yourself there by reading Roger Angell’s classic, The Summer Game.
The book includes plenty of history of the 1962 season, but Angell also shows why baseball commands such a hold on us. For instance, he explains why the Mets, a team in its infancy back then and who suffered legendary losing streaks, inspired diehard fans who wouldn’t quiet cheering, even when their team trailed by double digits.
I’ve always believed that the sports pages often include some of the best writing in most newspapers. While not a newspaper journalist, Angell combines the best of that type of lively writing with the close observations one sees in fiction and poetry. Here’s Angell on 44-year-old knuckleball pitcher, Hoyt Wilhelm: “The ball sailed up, made a sudden small swerve, like a moth in a hallway, and flumped feebly into the catcher’s glove, as the fans cried ‘Ah-hah!’ in unison.”
We won’t be seeing green for quite a while, but this book leads me there.
A peculiar thing happens when one lends a book. Are you already nodding? Do you already know what I mean?
Here’s what I mean. The borrower, with the book now in his possession, begins to believe the book belongs to him! Not right away. But the act of seeing the book on his desk, then on a nearby table, then maybe on a shelf, tossed there loosely but later tucked vertically between other volumes, creates a blur of ownership. With each passing week, the book takes on squatting rights.
The reason I know this so well is that I’ve been both lender and borrower. I still have a handful of books I’ve never returned, mainly because I lost contact with the owner. But between borrowing the book and losing contact, there grew a period when I had the opportunity to return what did not belong to me. But I didn’t. Mainly because I envisioned a day when I’d sit in the backyard and leisurely pore through this book that had been so generously recommended and lent. (I’ve read somewhere that when we buy books, we’re really buying the time that we will devote to reading it.)
For this reason, I’ve always been reluctant to lend out books. I’m in touch with some of the people who still have my books, but I never say anything. Maybe because I know how they feel. If I asked them to return my book, which now feels as if it belongs to them, they’d become resentful. And I wouldn’t blame them.
I have gotten better about lending books. Now, when I do, I try to imagine that I’ve given the borrower not the book but the gift of time. In fact, I don’t expect to ever see the book again. When it is returned, as sometimes miraculously happens, I’m always a little surprised. In most cases, I’ve forgotten the book was gone. Gazing upon a forgotten friend like this is a little exhilarating.
Lately what I’ve been doing is shedding, giving away books, something I could not have imagined years ago. It’s liberating. I’m freeing up not only my shelves but also my time. But the process of choosing which books to loosen from my clutches hasn’t been easy. I started with books owned for many years but never read, the ones I grudgingly admit I probably never will read. I’ve now moved to books read but with only moderate interest. Just because I wasn’t crazy about these select “duds” doesn’t mean others won’t devour them. I’m also giving away paperbacks that I liked but are not worth saving. I have hundreds and hundreds more that fall into the category of personally meaningful, and I can’t imagine parting with these quite yet—or ever. I think the key will be to find a dear friend or family member who will treasure the books as much as I do. I have to know that they’ll find a good home, that someone will be as stingy with them as I have been.