Rabid Dogs, Fences, Aliens & Christians

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Or, If I Tweet it, is it true?

I haven’t posted here since July because I’ve found it difficult to be anywhere on line. I’m only minimally connected, yet I know GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson referenced Syrian refugees as rabid dogs, a couple other contenders suggest prioritizing Christians, another gleefully touts building a fence around Mexico to stop the influx of illegal “aliens.” The amount of crazy here soars beyond troubling into a whole new universe.

Terrorism and a looming US presidential election have collided to create a 21st century black hole where fact-checking has been sucked dry, taking humanity as collateral damage. What remains is no shortage of bigotry. In fact, racism and profiling exist in abundance, as if the sanctity of human suffering is only the luxury of a particular people of a certain faith.

Any suggestion of compassion for basic human rights not to mention common sense are quickly and loudly denounced because those of us with even a modicum of empathy are what?…too tolerant?

It is frighteningly predictable the House voted the other day to require stringent vetting of any Syrian or Iraqi refugees despite all factual evidence disproving theories that they are the terrorists. Here’s hoping the House shares this screening expertise with the Vatican, NRA, IRS and our Banking and Securities sectors.

Equally troubling are that the misguided senses of entitlement reach into our own homes where politicians want the power to impose their beliefs over what may be in a woman’s uterus while bellowing about government being too big, thereby not in the business of providing aid to mothers and their newborns. And, you should see the carnage of this kind of hypocrisy in urban public school systems.

How can those who pretend to care so much for the United States feel no responsibility not only for the freedoms we are all assured but for the essence and tenets of the Christianity they tout as a litmus test when their words and actions oppose every value that religion represents?

Aren’t we better than this? In the 1950s when McCarthy was saving the world by outing Communists and “homosexuals,” at least you had to find the news to find the insanity. How is it with the ubiquitous access to information and even facts(!) today’s candidates don’t recall our own terrorist Hall of Fame—Oklahoma’s Timothy McVeigh, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, the Columbine High School Massacre duo of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and the Ku Klux Klan, to name a few. They’re inconvenient reminders, not irrelevant freaks of nature, and it would serve our politicians well to acknowledge the inflammatory vitriol they screech into microphones and disseminate in forty character Tweets fuel equally the angry, displaced and, yes, even Christians of the nation they profess to love.

It is terrifying to be riddled with endless commentary over unthinkable atrocities like the most recent Mali and Paris terrorist attacks on the heels of yet another school shooting in the United States, while hundreds of thousands of war-torn refugees suffer shakedowns and now stringent screening to find refuge.

But I’m not going to be intimidated anymore by the insinuation perpetuated by those who don’t have a clue that the promise of sanctuary is but a fairy tale unless we take their lead. Our humanity is not represented by the irrational exuberance of a one percent, a gender or the randomness of birthplace.

So there. I am heading into the Thanksgiving week grateful for my friends and family and all those I know who are smarter and more compassionate than the trending social media would lead us to believe. It’s time to focus on what’s important, not the loudest carnival barker in a tent.

Remembering What Counts

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Last Sunday a friend was in town for a week of business meetings, and we’d arranged months earlier to get together on what ended up being the nicest summer day Chicago had all season. We met in the Fall of 2001 at a job where we worked together for about six years. Jill was a part-timer, finishing a PhD in west Texas, although she’ll be the first to tell you she’s from New Jersey, which instantly makes me smile. So often her conversations begin with, “I’m from Jersey,” and if you’ve spent more than five minutes with anyone from The Garden State, you’d know she was raised there even if she hadn’t started the discussion with, “I’m from Jersey.”

I began the job about two or three weeks before her, and she was born a couple of months before me in the same year. That initiated the first Stone-1, Mullholland-1 rivalry. I may have begun the job earlier, she is forever younger than me, exemplifying a competitive predisposition foIMG_0643r which the Jersey girl hasn’t lost her passion. She’ll cleverly walk me into a Mullholland-1, Stone-0 faceoff on Facebook with a glee belying our presumed maturity.

We hit if off immediately, and by the end of October, 2001 we weren’t only colleagues, we were close friends. There are obvious commonalities like we’re only two months apart in age, both Type-A overachievers with plenty of pride and no fewer opinions, driven by perhaps a tad too much perfectionism. She’s finally a full-time employee but we never worked together in the association’s Merchandise Mart offices in Chicago when the association and I were located there.

From the moment we met we did and said silly stuff, laughed out loud a disproportionate number of times, although we are also good kvetchers. Still, we were very conscientious about our jobs, often disagreeing about certain aspects, but it never got in the way of our friendship. In the best of those times, I’d tell her she was full of it; she’d tell me I was overflowing in it. Then she’d do things like hang the phone up, call Jeannie the office manager and have her hide all my pens or create a crisis for Jeannie to deliver to me with an Academy Award-worthy performance, to which I’d respond by telling her to tell Jill she doesn’t need to earn a PhD, she needs to see one. In more serious times, our clashes might last a day or two, but we couldn’t sustain an argument too long. We’d disagree, sometimes loudly, get over it and stay over it. We’d always find some compromise and whatever the issue, it was never brought up again. Nothing was as important as our friendship. Six years flew by, we worked as hard as we played, and we’re still very proud of that.

There’d also been plenty of opportunity for colleagues, committee and Board members to pit us against each other when we worked together and even after I left. We saw many attempts, but they could never succeed although we’d never discussed such an “agreement,” for lack of a better term. We cared too much about each other, we had too much fun together. In hindsight, our closeness seems remarkable because we were two of only six permanent employees then, her being one of two part-timers and the only virtual one, living in an area as rural and distant as Chicago is urban and eclectic.

Then I left the association, abruptly. We spoke occasionally but not about work. She knew something went wrong. I know she heard all kinds of absurd stories just as surely as I know she gave them no weight because they weren’t words coming from me. We’d heard plenty of dirt on each other over the years but never once chose to acknowledge it. Although unsaid, we weren’t willing to ruin what we had by letting negative get between us.

It’s hard to stay connected when miles apart and gripped in details of separate lives. Except for an occasional Facebook post, text message or brief call where we still managed to laugh and disagree as if we’d never missed a day, we remained out of touch for over five years. And until we sat on the beach last Sunday, she didn’t know any “why’s.” In between laughing out loud about old pranks and goofy colleagues, I told her some of them. I’d been hit in a head-on car collision; our family had to sell our home because like others the Great Recession struck us hard, and some other unpleasantries. I explained they weren’t things I could talk about over the phone or through email, but I didn’t even need to say that. She’d never been mad that we weren’t talking, she just didn’t know why.

During the short time we spent discussing it, I saw something that until that moment I thought one could only feel: empathy. The way she listened, the tilt of her head, her few but well-chosen questions, the different tone in which she spoke―it struck me harder than the summer sun and gin and tonic. Those tough times paled compared to the care radiating from her as spontaneously as the waves lapping onto the beach and the sun beating down on the lakefront. Let me be clear: it wasn’t sappy. She doesn’t do sappy and doesn’t accept it from others. She was hearing information she’d long wondered about and would only acknowledge from her friend, and despite her Jersey cool, her concern was palpable. We didn’t dwell on any of it; we picked right back up where we left off, teasing each other, acting nowhere near our age (which I tried to reduce and for some reason she stopped me before I could even finish the logic, though I’d been certain she’d appreciate it).

What is relevant is not talking for at least five years and then picking up where we
left off. Dissecting “why” and “what happened” also were never part of any “agreement.” We’re friends. We respect each other even when we disagree. Even when years fly by. Even when others try to interfere. Last Sunday I not only felt but I saw the blessings of friendship, the love that comes from two people who genuinely care and respect each other. I will always love her, and I know that’s mutual. But not in a sappy way, Jill’s from Jersey.

There are countless hugely frightening and equally irrelevant issues dividing out country, political parties and families every day. But not knowing when we’ll see each other again or even talk, aside from a few silly give and takes on Facebook, can’t disconnect my friend Jill and me. Those issues simply aren’t part of our definition of friendship, love, empathy.

What an enlightening observation for me. People who really care about one another without agenda or condition are a rare and wonderful gift. That tenderness is unrelated to one’s religious belief, culture, age, politics, even blood lines, much to my surprise. Real friendship and love mean laughing at the beach, remembering each other’s best moments, and feeling only sadness about the bad ones. Tallying them to use against each other never once a consideration.

Thanks, Jill, for reminding me about what really counts. Yeah, I know―Mullholand-1, Stone-0. I’m grateful I’ve got a lifetime to keep up that rivalry, a lesson I needed to understand at that moment more than I can say. But that’s what makes these kinds of relationships special, right? Ok, maybe too sappy, but it’s the truth, and I’m prepared for the fallout because I know whatever her reaction, it’ll never, ever be one that would make me feel bad or sad. Is there a greater gift?

Strain the Wine, Scale Back the Hopes

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Cait's last day of 1st grade

Cait’s last day of 1st grade

Despite understanding the concept of time, we were still stunned to get a picture of our granddaughter Caitlin on her last day of first grade. She’s the right age at seven. I remember her birth as well as my daughters’. This milestone, however, conjures a lot of different emotions than when her mom and aunt reached it and subsequent ones. Back then we were excited for many reasons, some we all shared: no more homework, worrying about lunch from the fridge or the cafeteria and sleeping schedules loosened up. As parents we watched our daughters worlds open wider each year—and watched them enjoy it although I’m not sure they’ll yet admit it—and we could only imagine what the next year would bring. Exciting times for all of us, and certainly an early peek into how swiftly time slips past.

My husband was married before and his son has three kids so I had some wonderful grandma training from his brilliant brood. That his oldest recently turned 13 even blew our daughters away. It took a full week for my husband to accept his son turning 40 (several years ago), thus he can’t/won’t ponder the differences between our kids and grandchildren aging.

It’s bittersweet, which sounds so cliché, but it truly does arouse feelings of both pleasure and sadness. What joy that our daughter shares these special moments with us, and the thrill of seeing Cait learn to read, understand math, quiz us about dolphins and genuinely embrace the notion of learning delights me to my core.The endless ways she says and does things just as her mom and aunt did are extra special when they remind us of idiosyncrasies long forgotten. Little things like how she pronounces certain words, that she still broadcasts she’s going potty although she’s beyond the age that once solo act was worthy of reporting, the resistance to allow a moment of silence in the car. So much we found funny, a few were eye-rollers then, but not in hindsight.

Caitlin standing at the front steps, backpack draped over one shoulder, taller and more confident than the day before, with a subject line “Last day as a 1st grader” filled her parents with the same awe we once felt. But buried just under our surface is the reminder we’re aging. We can only hope to witness the landmark moments they anxiously await as we quickly do the math determining our age when she graduates high school in 11 years. If we take care of ourselves and knock on wood there are no unanticipated events, we should certainly still be around. But the ifs and hopefulness are new and disquieting. Cait’s brothers are two and sixteen months. I refuse to do that math.

Time won’t stand still but it will allow us to embrace it. I’ve never before been a greater champion of carpe diem. Latin for “sieze the day,” Horace wrote it in his poem Odes:

“…be wise, be truthful, strain the wine, and scale back your long hopes to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have {already} fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next day….”

There’s comfort from the wisdom we gain as the clock advances. So much more love to receive, to give, to share with those whose every moment offers pleasure simply because the moment occurs.

Truth: the great equalizer in creative nonfiction & life

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In this spring’s Writer’s Studio creative nonfiction class, author and teacher-extraordinaire Lauren Cowen talked on the first night about the irony of this genre—it being described by what it isn’t. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for professional wordsmiths, but from the start we know it’s not fiction. Yet, it still doesn’t tell those who don’t understand the genre anything about it. Some will come to a conclusion like, “Oh, so you just write essays like in high school,” then become a little less impressed with us and prouder of themselves. “Yeah, just essays because they’re so easy. Lord knows capturing the truth, making it compelling and universal, couldn’t be more effortless,” is my kindest retort, occurring only on days bordering on me being comatose.

I have pages of notes on the many eloquent ways Lauren explained creative nonfiction. Nuggets of wisdom include, “it’s a pact between the writer and the reader, a process of discovery” and “credibility is key, it has to have happened, it has to be emotionally true and factually true.” She spoke of its difficulties: “It alludes paraphrase, it yields and it complicates,” and she talked about its governing intent, “dwelling in the world you do know to find out what you don’t know.” She spoke of wrestling with a story’s “aboutness,” drafting and redrafting, always rooting for the story you want to tell, bearing witness to the details and the subtext, weaving in research and authority from emotion and events to write clearly and honestly. And all this from the first night.

Our winter semester’s teacher, reporter and author Kevin Davis had us read the latest book from the “Godfather” of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind. Writer James Wolcott of Vanity Fair magazine had ridiculed the genre and Gutkind, who publishes the magazine Creative Nonfiction, by calling him the Godfather. But it eventually backfired on Wolcott, as the genre is often referenced as the literature of reality. And while Gutkind is famous for insisting he’s not the creative nonfiction police, his insistence for truth and fact-finding, credibility and correctness offer strict boundaries.

Kevin, too, had a wealth of insights to help define the genre. He spoke of how small moments reveal universal truths, and, therefore, the importance of remembering details and expressing them carefully are paramount. His discussions on structuring creative nonfiction is invaluable. Character descriptions that give readers a hunger for what’s at stake in the story, scenes and dialogue that move it forward, research grounding us further in the facts, private and intimate knowledge—these are the pieces that connect experiences and make the truth more compelling, transforming and revealing than any other kind of storytelling.

Still, we learn in all our classes and in personal experiences that some who claim to be creative nonfiction writers will play loose with the truth. It can be as seemingly innocent as thinking that changing a minor detail will make a sentence sound more lyrical. James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, revealing how he rehabilitated himself from alcohol, drugs and crime rocketed him to success when Oprah Winfrey featured him on her show. After some easy fact-checking revealed Frey’s fabrications, his public humiliation focused a powerful light on the most essential requirement of the genre. Creative nonfiction must be true, not truthy, not composites of real events. The authentic retelling of small or large moments is mandatory.

Creative nonfiction may be the most potent genre because truth is power. The genre is certainly among the most challenging to write because many truths are tough to relive regardless of one’s wealth, color, gender or culture. As a result, the courage to use truth to retell stories has, in worst cases, the power to reveal atrocities and stop us from repeating them. In best case scenarios, the truth gives faces to vulnerabilities, connecting people and ideas, thereby making it more difficult for inequity and intolerance to spread.

Changing a detail because it adds a little more interest to a story or opens up possible misinterpretations of the bigger story is wrong. And it’s unnecessary. Fix a creative nonfiction piece by writing the truth or simply call your story fiction. Because there is no creative nonfiction police, it’s up to the writing community to police itself. Gutkind says, “More than in any other literary genre, the creative nonfiction writer must rely on his or her own conscience and sensitivity to others and display a higher mortality and a healthy respect for fairness and justice… Write both for art’s sake and for humanity’s sake.”

There’s a lot at stake.

Overlapping Readings?!

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Not in a bajillion years would I have dreamt of this date clash: my girlfriend Emily and I have readings on the same night! The weirdest part is that I have a reading at all; Em’s an old pro at this, I’m a rookie.

The readings are Thursday, May 14. Emily is reading from her book. Yes, the poetry and watercolor book she recently published, Lending Color to the Otherwise Absurd. She’ll be at Women & Children First Bookstore at 5233 N. Clark Street at 7:30.

I’m reading an essay with my other classmates from second semester at The Writer’s Studio, starting at 7 pm at the Royal Cafe at 6764 N. Sheridan Road. It’s an Ethiopian Restaurant where you can bring your own beer and wine and feast from the wonderful and affordable menu.

I keep thinking, “who’d have thunk?” It’s a crazy expression my sister used all the time and it drove. me. crazy. God, I wish she were around to say it one more time. She sure would for this occasion. But then again, I wonder. The way that question keeps popping in and out of my mind, maybe she is somewhere near. Emily just told me at lunch the other day she’s certain we all come back. Interesting synchronicity, isn’t it?