Crossing the Street

Photo by Lisa Weartz

On Tuesday night, my husband and I went on a date.  The Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis was offering a preview of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.  Al spent the day riding a street scrubber in the parking garage at the new JW Marriott currently being built on Washington Street. I settled the kids in after school, put on my dress up clothes and high heels and met him there.  The sun was shining and it was still warm out so we walked the few blocks past the theatre.  It was too early to get discount tickets so we headed down another block to the Rock Bottom Brewery for dinner and drinks.

Anyone who has spent any time in downtown Indianapolis knows the cross walks at the corner of Washington and Illinois, under the floor of the beautiful 7-story glass Artsgarden.  This corner is the job site of resident panhandlers.  I don’t know where they go when they are not on the corner but their faces are familiar so I know most of them are regulars.  As Al and I walk toward Illinois street, I am faced with a dilemma.  Suddenly, I don’t know where to look.  We are about to walk past a man who is sitting on the corner, leaned back against the crossing light pole with a backpack and a sign that says, “Why lie, it’s for beer.”  In the moment, all I know is that as I walk past in my dress-up clothes and high heels, I feel uncomfortable.  I feel conflicted about this man sitting on the street corner.  As we approach, he says, “Hello,” with a nod to my husband who returns the greeting and I feel a stiff, polite but unfeeling tight-lipped smile on my face while my eyes stay focused on the ground.  We pass to cross the street and this man calls out, “Hey Nate!” to the corner dweller opposite him and I see him gesture something out of the corner of my eye.  We keep walking.  An hour and a half later, we cross that street again in the opposite direction, and the guys are gone.

That night in my warm bed, I thought about that guy on the corner.  A flurry of feelings was running through me.  I tried to define what made me uncomfortable in the brief moment our paths crossed that day.  I’m pretty sure that first and foremost, I resented the fact that he was there on my date night, on a sunny spring afternoon during time that my hard-working husband and I set aside for one another.  Recognizing that feeling made me angry at me.  Who I am to feel inconvenienced by a guy on the street corner? Poor me, forced to contemplate homelessness when I was supposed to be having fun…

 Then I thought about that feeling of disconnection between my head and my heart.  My heart almost always tells me to offer assistance, help where I can.  But my head tells me, “Be careful.  Don’t encourage the panhandler.  Giving out money is enabling not helping.”   So, I’m conflicted.  I’m pretty sure that’s what that tight-lipped look on my face was all about.

It makes me sad when I think about all that inner turmoil and conflict.  All that stuff is about me.  All that stuff holds me back and keeps me from connecting with another human being.  Why does it matter if this guy is professional panhandler or not?  He is still a person.  If he says hello, I should look him in the eye.

If you can’t say anything nice…

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that people who most often comment after news articles online have nothing positive to say?  Sometimes, the commentary gets so far off track that the commentators forget what the original article was about because they are too caught up in calling one another out for bad spelling.  Sometimes whole conversations play out having nothing to do with the topic at all.  Today, NPR posted a call out to parents who might like to have their child athlete interviewed about his or her role model in sports.  Right off the bat (pun intended), negative comments started to roll.  First the people speaking out against professional athletes as role models got on board.  Then the Tiger Woods comments started to fly.  Next the women’s rights people started complaining that no one was posting suggestions with women athletes as role models followed by the people who blame athletes for distracting the world from the unsung heros of education.  Now, many of these folks had valid points but NPR was just trying to interview some kids.  Uh Oh, now some lady is offended because NPR used the word kids to describe children.  What is this world coming to?!  So, then this guy responds to the offended lady’s post and asks if anyone has used an Oxford comma today.  It goes downhill from there and I stopped reading when a lady posted that it was unfair that NPR was only going to interview articulate “kids” to which a guy responded, it’s radio and if your kid isn’t willing to learn to communicate properly…

What if, we all followed that old rule,” if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all?”  Seriously, let’s do an experiment.  For the next week, anytime you feel compelled to make a snarky comment online, turn it into a positive.  For example,  if after reading an article about Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street moving from his trash can to the recycling bin next door you post a comment.  Now, you think Oscar is selling out by leaving his old hood.  Instead of revealing your sour grapes by posting that Oscar is a tree-hugging snob, find a way to turn it around.  Post well-wishes to Oscar as he moves into his new home or just resist clicking on that submit button at all.  Either way, the World Wide Web will be a happier place.  Just sayin’.

Bibliography Schmigliography

School lets out for summer in about a month and I still recall my golden days of freedom after the last bell.  Remember that senior thesis paper we all had to write?  Back in 1986, my English teacher, Mrs. Marsland, assigned our class a paper entitled, The Meaning of Success.  We read 3 biographies of our own choosing about successful people and then wrote our papers as the final assignment for the class.  I was an A student so I figured I had this one in the bag and that may have led me to be a little brash.

Leading up to that paper, I remember a lot of lessons about footnotes and bibliographies.  Hours of class time was spent on the technical aspects of writing.  What I don’t remember was any discussions on brain storming or how to form a coherent idea.  I don’t remember how we were supposed to transform 3 disconnected biographies about people we deemed successful into that thesis.  But, I know what I did.

As a 17-year-old girl in rural Mid-America where some boys went to college and girls aspired to marry rich farm boys, I was a little bit of a rebel.  At 17, I was determined to go to college for the sole purpose of getting the hell out-of-town.  Luckily, one of the founding families of my small town set up a scholarship fund for kids like me and I was allowed to go.  But, before that, I had to write that last high school paper.

My dad and I share a love of reading and he introduced me to the public library when I was a pre-teen.  Our town library was a sparkling new, one story, pre-fabricated box of a building about the size of the modern great room in a 3,000 square foot custom home without the vaulted ceiling.  Well, I didn’t want to write my thesis paper based on one of the dusty biographies in our school library.  I was sure Mrs. Marsland had read them all cover-to-cover and had read every conceivable research paper based on each of them.  So I headed to our tiny public library for some fresh material and hoped to find some bios with a little shock value.

My friend Laura’s mom was the librarian so I put on my polite face as I answered all the standard questions about school and family life and then asked for directions to the biographies.  Mrs. Montague stood over my shoulder for a while as I perused the chest-high faux wood shelf for something controversial.  She made suggestions based on the choices her older daughters had made and proudly told me that Laura was half way through her second biography.  A subtle hint that I’d better get started, I think.  She eventually wandered off to do librarian stuff and I sat down on the floor to get a better view. 

I left the library with three biographies that day and Mrs. Montague with a look of concern on her face.  I checked out the life stories of John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus of Nazareth and my failure to conform was rewarded with a C+.  Fortunately, I had already been accepted to Playboy Magazine’s #16-rated party school in the nation at that time, good old Southern Illinois University.

The point I tried to make with my less than effective thesis was that success in life, as it is in writing,  is a subjective matter.  One person’s definition can have little meaning to someone else.  I choose three people whose common bond was untimely death.  They were three people who under separate definitions could be deemed successful.  Webster’s defines success as the following:

 suc·cess -\sək-ˈses\,  noun,  Latin successus, from succedere, 1537

1 obsolete : outcome, result
2 a : degree or measure of succeeding b : favorable or desired outcome; also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence
3 : one that succeeds

All three were famous, two amassed some wealth along the way, and that last guy was the catalyst for a world-wide religion so I think favor and eminence apply.  Now it’s true John and Marilyn’s successes came to an abrupt halt in their failure to go on living but it’s hard to dispute the success of a guy whose death was just the middle of the story.  So, my C-plus paper was not a success, but it makes me wonder.  How can we do a better job of teaching the process of writing?  The technical stuff is important but what about creative thinking. 

 It would be nice if, like Harry Potter, we could just tap a wand on our temple, recite an incantation, and swirl our thoughts into a bowl of water to share but we muggles have to practice.  We need to develop our craft and learn from one another.  The writing community has it figured out and the evidence appears in the multitude of blogs and web sites on writing. But, who is teaching the teachers how to write or at least, how to teach writing?  Who decides which is better:  a well-structured mechanical piece that follows a predetermined theme or a meandering but creative fresh-perspective?   Well, in my case, Mrs. Marsland did. 

So, at 42, I am thrilled to find myself still learning about the craft that I have always loved and I hope that the kids sitting in their classrooms for a few more weeks are encouraged to take a little creative license now and then.

April 23, 2010

I made my kids go to school today.  They didn’t want to go, and that’s unusual.  Both my boys have discovered that it is easier to just go to school and keep up with the work than to miss a day and have to make it up.  I’ve had to put my foot down in the past to get them to take a sick day when they truly were sick.  They are also socially motivated to go to school, so when they balk it’s cause for concern.

It seems that last year, a high school student made a threat about shooting up the school on April 23, 2010 and a message to that extent was found written on a bathroom wall.  The school investigated and the author of the threat was never found.  Today is the threatened day.

When Jake asked if I would pick him up today at 11:30 so he wouldn’t have to walk from the middle school to the high school for Japanese class, I was surprised.  Jake loves his Japanese class and I couldn’t believe he wanted to miss it.  So, we talked about it and I found out that Jake was having anxiety about the shooting threat and felt he would be vulnerable walking across the street to the high school.  It hadn’t even crossed my mind how that would feel.

The high school is built up on a hill and looks over the property on which the middle school sits.  Of course, if there were a gunman anywhere on the north side of the building, anyone walking from the middle school over would be vulnerable.  This image makes me so sad.  I am sad that my fourteen year old was driven to calculate a point of vulnerability in his daily routine.  I’m sure his exposure to video games and movie footage gave him the knowledge to figure it out, but going to school just shouldn’t conjure those images.

Up until last night, Sean, my high-schooler, hadn’t mentioned the threat.  By late evening, kids were posting concerns and bantering about wrong and right choices for the day on Facebook, so I asked Sean how he felt about it.  He said he was scared to go to school but he hadn’t mentioned it because he figured I would tell him to go anyway.  Well, he was right and I think we will all have a talk after school today about why going to school was the right choice in my opinion, but he also described a jarring image at the root of his fear.  Sean said he was concerned about passing periods because the hallways are so packed full between classes that he feared turning a corner and coming face-to-face with a gun wielding student and having nowhere to run.  Again, I am disturbed that my child has thought this through to this degree.

I am angry that my kids had to summon courage to go to school today.  I am angry that a terrorist put me in the position in which I had to choose whether or not to send my kids to school.  But then I remember that the terrorist is a child.  The person who wrote the words on the wall that marked this day is someone who is hurting.  Even if the words were written as a misguided joke, the person who wrote them is in need. So, this morning when I asked God to give my kids courage and to protect the children of our community, I also made a request for that one.  I asked God to bring that child peace and a sense of belonging so that whatever feelings drove him or her to write those words will be relieved.  I firmly believe it’s wrong to let fear drive our decisions and so I made my kids go to school today.,0,1990266.story

Barista Envy

Last night was the monthly meeting of my south side writers group.  We meet at The Strange Brew, my favorite local coffee shop.  Because Al and I are small business owners, I try to support our local mom and pop shops as much as I can.  Truthfully, though, I just love hanging out at Strange Brew.  The walls are painted warm organic colors and art from local artists is featured there.  The owners are fun, friendly, creative people and the coffee is way better than the burnt flavors at that other well-known chain coffee shop.

We had a really great critique’ session.  Throughout the evening, the group discussed the mental state of prisoners held in concentration camps, zombie existentialism while dealing with revenge, if it’s worth changing the reality of the world to make your story work, and whether villains have to be bad guys or just guys with issues.  I didn’t actually submit anything this time but the group walked me though a brainstorming session about my antagonist in The Barn and it really got me thinking.  I plan to get to work on it this week.  But that wasn’t even the highlight of my night.

Toni, who owns the coffee shop along with her husband Daniel, brought my iced tea to the table before our meeting got started and she had a story to tell.  It’s her story, but the gist of it is she had tickets to see her favorite author speak and ended up not only a V.I.P. with back-stage passes, but also went to dinner with him…swoon.  I wasn’t familiar with the author so I came home and looked him up.  Neil Gaimon is the author of Mirror Mask among many other best sellers (I haven’t read it but I loved the movie)… double swoon!  Now, as I said, I’m not familiar with his work so I went to his website to check him out, and there on the most recent entry in his journal is a picture of Toni as her alter ego, Joan of Dark of the Naptown Roller Girls, dressed in all her roller derby gear.  His headline reads:   Vonnegut and Rollergirls.  Holy crap, I say.  I wonder if Toni feels like I would if I saw myself featured in Stephen King’s journal?  “Bargersville chicken farmer – King’s biggest fan.”  Ok, Kurt Vonnegut and Roller Derby are much more exciting than my chickens and Toni is way cooler than me but you get the idea.  This was an event of a lifetime.

Now this was all so very cool for Toni, but what made my day was that she took the time to share it with me.  I don’t think we became BFF’s on the spot or anything but it’s nice to know that the lady with the pink hair who smiles when she brings me my coffee sees me and knows I would appreciate her story.  That’s what it’s all about, making connections with people.  Never forget that. 

Now, I’ve got to make a trip to the book store.  I think some Neil Gaimon will be included in my summer reading.  I’ll have to ask Toni where to start.

Stirred up

So, I ask the waitress for the Déjà’ Blue Martini, dirty.  It’s on the menu as a featured drink and dirty just means I want the bartender to splash a little olive juice in the glass.  The marketing is very clever.  It’s made with Sky vodka which comes in a blue bottle and is garnished with hand-stuffed blue cheese olives.  I have never been much of a martini drinker because first of all, they are very strong – straight alcohol.   And, for the most part, I think vodka tastes terrible.  However, I LOVE olives, so I keep trying.  Besides, the glass the martini is served in looks cool.

I’ve had a blue cheese martini before.  My favorite bartender Paul makes the best with Grey Goose vodka.  He knows the trick about getting the vodka really cold and he knows the exact right amount of dirty to make mine.  Sadly, the bar he works for just transferred him to Zionsville and that’s a little far to drive for a cocktail so I decide to give the Déjà Blue a try.

My girlfriends and I are chatting away when the waitress returns with our drinks, so without a glance, I give mine a sip.  Yuck, it tastes like slightly chilled vodka with a lot of vermouth and my olives are the garden variety pimento stuffed kind.  Now, I know I’m going to sound like a martini snob here but, I ordered the Déjà Blue.  Again, I tell you it’s on the menu as a featured drink.

 So, I stop the waitress and say, “Um, I ordered the Déjà Blue Martini and it’s supposed to have blue cheese stuffed olives.”  Remember, it’s all about the olives, people. 

The waitress replies, “Uh, yeah, the bartender hasn’t stuffed any today.”

My girlfriends and I stare at her in anticipation of an extended explanation and she just stares back in silence.  Finally, the waitress asks, “Do you want me to go stuff some for you?”

 To which I reply, I’ll admit with a slight tone of sarcasm, “Yes, please.”  I’m pretty sure when she turned to walk away, she was rolling her eyes.

Now, I’ve been a waitress and a bartender, in my day, and I wonder…when did it become acceptable to substitute another item than what the customer ordered because, “I don’t feel like making it right now.”?  Is it also ok to deliver an empty glass to a customer who ordered orange juice because, “Sorry, we haven’t squeezed any oranges today.”?  Or, to serve a Mushroom Quiche without the mushrooms because, “we haven’t sliced any mushrooms yet.”?

So the waitress stuffed my olives and my martini was just O.K.  The olives (I hope she didn’t spit in them) tasted great.  But, I still miss Paul.

Treasure Hunt

This weekend as Al and I cleared brush from around the broken fence near the old outhouse, I spotted a slender spear of asparagus in the grass.  I knew asparagus grew wild along that fence row, a leftover from someone’s garden of the past, but every spring I seem to miss the day the sprout reaches peak edibility. 

Every year in late March I start walking the fence row searching for a sign that fresh asparagus is on its way.  Every year I am diligent in my search for a week or so.  Then, I get distracted for a few days and when I remember to search again, I’m too late.  The once tender sprout seems to shoot up 12 inches in a day and the stalk becomes fibrous and the top turns to seed.

This year, I got lucky.  We just happened to be out working in an area where the wild asparagus grows on the day it was ready to eat.  I spotted that one lone spear and I snapped it off at the ground.  Perfect.  I could tell by the crisp pop it made when I bent the stem to snapping that it was still tender and good.  I dropped my rake and left Al to the brush as I took off down the fence row on my search.  I scanned the fence line until I found the telltale sign.  A wispy brown bundle four feet high revealed where the seeds had fallen last autumn.  There on the ground I hit the jackpot.  Ten perfect tender spears of asparagus.  It was just enough for…me.  I didn’t share either.  Yesterday, while the kids were in school and Al was downtown at work, I started a pot of water to boil and dropped my bountiful treasure in.  I cooked them till they turned a brilliant green.  Not too much, I like them slightly crisp.  And with a quick rinse in the strainer, and a dressing of soy sauce and balsamic vinegar, my masterpiece was complete.  Mmmm, sweet memory, unless I get lucky next year.

The Bonnaroo Experience – Part 3 (Do I hear dueling banjos?)

Lisa stepped up to the driver’s side door of what appeared to be the cab driver’s personal vehicle converted to a taxi via the logo magnet and dash-mounted fare box.  Through the open window, a deep-hills Tennessee drawl asked, “Y’all need a ride?”  Lisa relayed her conversation with dispatch and this guy wasn’t the car they sent but he was there now and willing to take us back to the hotel.  So, he radioed the hub and let them know we’d been picked up. 

Adam walked around to the passenger side front door with his pillow clutched to his chest.  Being chivalrous, without a word, he was volunteering to sit up front with the driver.  In mid-stride, he stopped and gave Lisa a perplexed look over the roof of the car. There in the passenger seat sat a middle-aged woman in her pajamas holding a partially unwrapped cellophane package containing what smelled like a baloney and mayo sandwich.

“Uh, are we going to fit?” Lisa asked the driver.

“Well, ma’am, three of you can ride in the back but since I got my girlfriend ridin’ shotgun to keep me from fallin’ asleep, one of you is gonna hafta wait for the next ride.”

Lisa looked at the three of us standing bleary eyed on the side of the road and shrugged.  Erin, with eyes wide shook her head indicating the negative.

“We’ll find a way to fit,” Lisa said to the open window.  And without waiting for a response, she opened the rear door.  Like a scene from a circus film, we piled into the back of the compact sedan, pillows and all.  Erin sat across Adam’s lap and the driver, clearly distressed at his extra large fair sputtered and moaned over his shoulder at us.

“Y’all are gonna have to hunker down when we pass the police car at the gate.  I’m not s’posed to transport this many people.”

Erin rolled her eyes and sighed then lay down across the three of us with her pillow over her head.  We finally made it past the gate and to the intersection at the highway.  To our surprise, the cab driver turned right instead of left driving in the opposite direction of the hotel.

“Uh, our hotel is the other way,” Lisa called over the seat.

“ I know, I’m takin’ ya the back roads,” he replied.

Lisa turned to Adam and I and in the darkness, mouthed the words, “We Are Gonna Die.”

Please check your humility at the door.

The pleasant surroundings disguise why we are here.  Walls covered in sand colored, cloud textured wallpaper meet the floor of tan, sculpted Berber carpet.   Lobby chairs with soft, muted geometric patterns line the walls trimmed in warm wood grain.  Quiet, upbeat Jazz plays over the ceiling speakers and the aroma of brewing coffee is a screen for what waits beyond the tall, curved wooden wall.

Men sit alone in the upholstered chairs wringing their hands and staring at the floor.  Women come and go through the art-glass windowed door: middle-aged women in suits and heels, teenage girls in brand name t-shirts accompanied by mothers, elderly women in pastel colored velour track suits with matching purses.  Some smile at the woman holding the door and some mumble to the floor as they pass through.

Beyond the door are dimly lit rooms filled with electronics and machines of plexiglass and steel.  The women on this side of the door are resolved.  This is humiliating and uncomfortable but it must be done.  Each woman disappears into her own closet-sized room.  The directions are simple.  Strip to the waist and put on the shoulder cape as a parody to modesty.  Step forward and while keeping feet flat on the floor stretch your spine so a stranger can stretch and manipulate one naked breast on a cold steel plate at the height of which your collarbone usually resides.  The stranger, who does this job many times a day, lowers a plexiglass plate trapping your body in an impossible pose.  “Hold your breath,” she commands and you comply though your instinct is hyperventilation.  The exercise is repeated with a different pose and then on the other side.  The stranger makes light conversation in an effort to mask the intimacy you are sharing. 

You dress and are released back to the world.  The men waiting in the lobby look up hopefully as you come through the door.  You’re not theirs and disappointed, they look back to the floor.  Relief at having the task complete makes you feel light.  A treat is in order so you drop by your favorite coffee shop to log on to the free Wi-Fi and remind your friends to schedule their annual routine mammograms today.

Pardon me while I stab you in the back, please.

 Characters live in my head and from time to time, I let them out to play on paper.  All the characters in my head are happy, fun-loving people.  I would be friends with my characters.  This presents a problem in my writing because I don’t like creating antagonists.  I don’t like the guy who causes conflict or creates a problem for my happy people.  I don’t want to go there which often makes my stories go nowhere. 

Looking back at some of my work, the bad guy is the least developed character if he is even there at all.  Many times, the source of conflict in my works is a vague idea of potential turmoil but not really tangible.  I am just too nice.

Take Mr. Orville in my barn story.  The story is suspenseful but Mr. Orville…not so much.  He is the shadow of a bad guy.  He’s a little grumpy but who wouldn’t be when his neighbor is snooping around on his property.  So I am issuing myself a challenge…

Come up with a DECENT bad guy!