What Makes Me Feel Strong?

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 25, 2022.]

The dog is Colorado. He belongs to the shop owners, and he loves to paddleboard.

Paddleboarding makes me feel strong.

I took my first lesson last summer. The instructor mentioned an absurd number of calories that a person burns while standing upright on a paddleboard, maintaining balance. I don’t remember the number—numbers are my kryptonite. Plus, I don’t care about calorie-burning numbers like I did when I was young (and foolish).

The instructor explained all our muscles were working together and continuously to keep us upright on our boards while moving us over the water. That’s what impressed me—my muscles working to keep me balanced, upright, strong. As I age and watch older family members age, I realize balance is my friend, falling is my foe.

Standing on the board, paddling around Barker’s Island on Lake Superior makes me feel strong—Popeye strong. Sometimes when I circle Barker’s Island, I have to sit on my board for half the trip because the wind produces choppy waters on either the outside or the inside of the island.

When I have to sit, I use my paddle and board like a kayak and propel myself through the water. The choppier the waves, the faster I paddle, finding a rhythm that sends me speeding through the bumpy water. (Speeding might be hyperbole, but I feel strong—Bionic Woman strong.) The waves and I battle. They want to turn my board sideways or move it backwards. I grip the paddle, cut the blade into the water and pull, over and over. I am strong and resolute—Ziva David, kick-butt determined.

I skim across the water and watch the sky, water, trees, plants, birds and otters, while I fortify my future ability to stand upright, walk sure footed, and retain balance. I’m She-Hulk strong.

And all the strong-ness and grace as I skim across Lake Superior, floods my mind with strength and calmness, and hopefully, some wisdom.

If I Could Travel Back in Time . . .

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 21, 2022.]

My uncle and mother with their mother, my nana,
circa 1946

I’d pick a summer day in 1950 when my mother was ten and her brother was eight. They lived in Milwaukee in a middle-class neighborhood about ten blocks from A.O. Smith, a large manufacturing plant.

The sun would shine, the temperature would be 75°, and the breeze would be slight.

I’d go out to play with my mother, her brother, and their friends. We’d run down the sidewalks on our way to Sherman Park or maybe Washington Park. We’d ride the bus at least one way because Washington Park is two-and-a-half miles from their house. At the parks we’d swim, play baseball, and swing. If we saved bus fare we’d buy a treat at the concession stand.

Maybe we’d stay home and play games of tag through the front yards, up and down the block. Or games of cops and robbers or army, escaping through backyards by climbing fences or slipping through gates. Or games of hide-and-seek, hoping not to be the first one found.

We’d sit on the front stoop of someone’s house and drink a cold lemonade squeezed from lemons and sweetened with sugar.

Refreshed, we’d play hopscotch or jacks or marbles. If someone ran home to grab a section of clothesline, we’d jump rope and chant, “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear” or “I’m a Little Dutch Girl” or “I Went Downtown.”

I’d know all the games and songs because an older child teaches a younger child. Ever notice that we don’t learn these from our parents?

We’d call each other by our childhood nicknames, squabble about the rules of games, laugh at our silly antics.

Maybe we’d go home with skinned knees or elbows, wouldn’t matter because we’d spent the day together. We’d eat our dinner and wash the dishes. We’d sit on the floor in front the radio and listen to Jack Benny, The Lone Ranger, or The Green Hornet.

If I could travel back in time, I’d pick that warm summer day in 1950 and play with my mother and her brother because Oh, what larks! to play with your mother and your favorite uncle when they were children.

What Is One of My Favorite Photos That I’ve Ever Taken?

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 20, 2022. The blog prompt actually asked me to choose my favorite photo ever. I have too many favorites, so I picked one of my favorites from 2021.]

Foreground to background: Evan, Clara, and Michael. Not pictured: me pushing Charlie in his stroller and walking my two dogs, Cabela and Ziva

This photo, taken April 14, 2021, is one of my favorites. My grandchildren love to go for a walk, so on days when they come to my house, we often stroll around the neighborhood.

Evan holds a grabber, and you can’t see it, but Michael carries a plastic grocery bag filled with trash and another grabber. In the spring our walks become garbage patrols. The snow has melted, and hidden wrappers, disposable cups, bottles, cigarette butts, and the odd mitten or piece of clothing dot the landscape.

My grandkids blurt exclamations of joy when they spot a piece of garbage. It’s an accomplishment. I know how they feel. When we were children, my sisters and I pulled a red wagon down our country road and picked up garbage. We were influenced by Lady Bird Johnson’s “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. We didn’t have grabbers, so we used our hands. Things were tougher when my generation was young. (As we age, we enter the I-walked-to-school-in-blinding-snow generation.)

I love walking with my grandkids. But before I took this idyllic photograph, pandemonium ruled, as it does before every walk. Once we decide to go, strategical planning and the ensuing chaos from working that plan almost swamp me. Everyone needs to go to the bathroom, including me. “There are no porta potties on the walk,” I say. I check Charlie’s diaper. We dress for the weather, and during the winter that means helping two toddlers into snow pants, jackets, boots, hats, and mittens. I put leashes on the dogs, who plead to be included, and I stuff poo bags in my jacket. It sounds simple, but understand that all four grandkids and both dogs are moving targets. Just as we are about to exit the house, one of my grandkids usually utters, “I think I have to go to the bathroom, again.”

At this point I think to myself, “Eisenhower had it easy–he only had to organize D-Day.”

However, once we hit the paved trail, serenity settles in, and my grandkids race each other, hunt for garbage, climb trees along the boulevard, and play games with rules only they know. Watching them, my memory of the pre-walk havoc fades. These walks will become cherished memories for my grandkids and me.

What’s Next on My Reading List?

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 18, 2022. Click on blue lettering to connect to websites about the books, authors, and events mentioned.]

My non-writing desk

“What are you reading?” is one of my favorite questions. It gives me permission to talk about the books I’m reading and soon-to-be-read books that I have stacked on my non-writing desk, which functions as an extension of the nearby bookshelf. And, I love to hear about what other people are reading. It’s a good way to add more books to the stack on the desk.

I’m going to cheat a bit and answer this question two ways. First, I’ll discuss what I’m currently reading. Both books are my reward at the end of the day. I read the nonfiction book in front of the TV, so I don’t have to watch it. I like to sit in the family room with my husband in the evening, but our TV-watching tastes are not aligned. I read the fiction book in bed before I go to sleep. Second, I’ll discuss some books on my to-be-read list.

My current nonfiction read is Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin (2010). This is a beautifully written nonfiction book about the Mississippi River. The story starts in the 1700s, and I’m currently reading about events and life along the river in the 1800s. The Mississippi River, the star of the story, is complex and evolving, with a wide emotional range. The stories of the people who lived along the river and worked on the river are compelling too, but the Mississippi steals the show. I like this book because Sandlin’s writing is excellent and well researched. I’m learning so much about the river and how it worked and currently works as part of a large ecosystem throughout the middle of the United States. Unfortunately, I’m learning about how people have damaged that ecosystem. When I’m finished with Wicked River, it will have a permanent home on one of my many bookshelves.

My current fiction read is Saving the Scot by Jennifer Trethewey. It’s Book 4 in her Highlanders of Balforss series. I’ve read the other three books: Tying the Scot, Betting the Scot, and Forgetting the Scot. These books make me swoon, laugh, and cry, and I hold my breath during the engaging, suspenseful action scenes. Before I read these books, I hadn’t read a romance novel in over twenty years, and even then, I could count the ones I’d read on one hand. Trethewey’s books are different. True her characters are beautiful and handsome and brave and have fast-paced adventures on their way to true love. But her characters have human flaws and problems that make them endearing and relatable. And yes, the male characters do save the female characters. BUT the female characters save the male characters too. The females are intelligent, clever, resourceful, and brave, and they’re nobody’s doormat. The supporting characters are fully developed people, each with distinct personalities, who add to the enjoyment of Trethewey’s books. As a writer, I admire the storytelling and dialogue in these books. Her books entertain me and inspire me to be a better writer. After I die, my children will have to decide what to do with these books because I’m not giving them away.

Here are some books on my to-be-read list. I have lots of books that fit this category, but I’m going to limit my list to books that I plan to read in the very near future.

  1. We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz. This book is first on my list because I checked it out from the library. It made my list because I heard the writer speak at a virtual Author Chat sponsored by Honest Dog Books. (Click here to view upcoming Author Chats, which you can listen to from home.) Bartz is originally from Milwaukee, and so am I. Her book was a Reece Witherspoon pick for August 2021. (I also read the Peter Ash series by Nick Petrie. I have one of his books in my stack. He’s a Milwaukee native too.)
  2. My Father’s Keep: A Journey of Forgiveness through the Himalaya by Ed Abell. This book made my list because I’ve met the author, I like reading books that combine adventure with self-discovery, and I had a difficult relationship with my father.
  3. Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George. I’m not a novelist, but I believe I can learn from George’s writing advice. This book made the list because I love George’s mystery series featuring Thomas Lynley. They are beautifully written: literary, suspenseful, and full of characters I care about.
  4. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Science is interesting, and I like memoir. I had a college professor who wanted to turn me into a biology major because I was so fascinated by my Intro to Biology course. I didn’t bite because I knew it would’ve been a mistake–the math would’ve doomed me. But I love reading about science, medicine, nature, and biology.
  5. Maggie Brown & Others by Peter Orner. This is a collection of short stories, a format that’s always appealed to me. I also write them, so I like to read short stories by other writers. I heard Orner talk at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book in the fall of 2020. The festival is normally held in Harbor Springs, Michigan, but it was virtual in 2020. I like short story collections because I can read a story or two, read something else, and then read another story or two.

I’ll stop here because I need to go read something!

My writing desk

What Makes Me Laugh?

Ziva, the poodle paper shredder. It’s never funny at the time. But tragedy plus time equals comedy.

Bloganuary is asking. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 7, 2022.

Lots of things make me laugh, and lots of things make me chuckle or grin. So, I’m setting the bar higher: What makes me laugh so hard that I can hardly breathe, that tears trickled down my cheeks, that I cross my legs tight, that I can’t stop laughing because everything becomes hilarious?

Very little.

I’m not a curmudgeon. I like humor. I watch a lot of comedy. I like reading humor. Satire is my favorite. I’m currently watching Upstart Crow on Britbox. The show is a parody and satire of Shakespeare and history and modern times all mixed up into one delicious, sinful sundae topped with the works. I chuckle and marvel at the brilliant wordplay and acting, but I pay close attention to the rapid-fire exchange of dialogue and that probably stifles unhinged laughter on my part.

I can’t remember any recent bouts of uncontrollable laughter. But I remember some past episodes. When I was about fourteen, my mom and I had an argument, so I stormed upstairs and refused to eat supper. She made me come back downstairs. My parents were getting ready to go out, so it was just us kids at the table. I was crying, and my mom was yelling.

My sister picked up the plastic milk carton, which was almost empty, drank the milk, then sucked the air from the carton, causing it to collapse inward. She pulled the carton from her lips, and said, “Good to the last drop!” I had just taken a swig of milk. Laugher and milk erupted from my mouth, spraying the table and my siblings. We laughed so hard. Mom yelled at us to stop, but that made us laugh harder. My dad told her, “Leave the kids alone,” and we laughed ourselves out in peace.

When I was about nineteen, I took my first communion at the Presbyterian church my grandparents belonged to. My grandmother played the piano and organ at the church. Almost no one was married or buried without her accompanying the event. The solemnity of the minister’s words about communion paired with the crackers and grape juice started me laughing. The more I tried to suppress it, the more I laughed—it was my Chuckles the Clown moment. My laughter so shocked me that I’ve never taken communion again.

The following are memorable works that reduced me to jiggling jelly:

Bud Abbot and Lou Costello performing their “Who’s on First” routine.

Carol Burnett playing Scarlet O’Hara in a parody of the curtains-to-dress scene from Gone with the Wind. (Burnett’s show cracked me up. I consider it the best comedy/variety show ever televised.)

Harpo Marx cutting a piece of material from the dress of a snooty customer in The Big Store.

Harpo and Chico Marx packing and unpacking clothes in a scene from A Night in Casablanca.

The final scene of Moonstruck when all the characters are gathered at the kitchen table. The movie is a wonderfully told yarn that culminates in a grand punchline during breakfast.

Anything written by Patrick F. McManus, Dave Barry, P.G. Wodehouse (especially the stories with Jeeves and Wooster) and Erma Bombeck, the first writer to make me laugh uproariously. I started reading her column when I was in middle school. I recently reread some of her work. She’s timeless.

Laughter is indispensable, so thanks for asking, Bloganuary! I smiled and chuckled while writing my answer.

Nana Kitty

My nana died in 2003, but she still inspires me.

As a mother, Nana received mixed reviews from her children. But as a grandparent, Nana had a marvelous second act, a comeback. And isn’t that what being a grandparent is about? A do-over, a second chance, a revival?

Nana inspired me because she survived shit. Her father died of typhoid fever in 1921 when she was seven. He left behind seven children and a pregnant wife before the social safety nets of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Nana grew up poor and hungry. When she turned twenty-one in 1936, she voted for Roosevelt.

Nana Kitty is sitting on her mother’s lap. Mary and Joseph, Nana’s parents, would have two more children. But the eighth one was born after Joseph died from typhoid fever.

After she turned nine, she worked summers picking beans in the fields around West Bend, Wisconsin. When I was nine, I picked dandelions. Seven months after the stock market crash of 1929, she graduated from eighth grade. She yearned to go to high school, but her mother told her she had to work. Shortly before she retired from waitressing at sixty-eight, she applied to Milwaukee Area Technical College. She worked toward her GED, tutored students in math, and took college-level courses in English and psychology all at the same time. She was sixty-nine when she earned her GED. I was a college student.

Nana lived by one of her favorite maxims, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” On a low-come wage, she saved change until she and her first husband had enough money to move from their low-income neighborhood and buy their own home, the smallest house in a middle-class neighborhood. She wanted her children to have a better life than she had. She was widowed at forty-seven, but she worked hard to keep her house and pay off the mortgage.

Nana inspired me because she loved each of her seven grandchildren, which included my three cousins, with a passion. She forgave our mistakes and bad behavior and defended us against our common enemies—the parents. To her each of us was special and beautiful and interesting. She gave us lots of hugs, kisses, and Cracker Jacks. She played Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button? and Cat’s Cradle with us. She told us stories and sang to us. She danced with us in her kitchen. She loved Bobby Darin and 50s rock-n-roll. Her favorite dance was The Twist, which she danced at my wedding.

Nana always had time for a phone call. I memorized her number before anyone else’s. If I called and was upset, she listened. I once tested the limits of Nana’s ability to listen by following her around her house, describing the scene-by-scene detail of a movie I’d watched and loved. Like a typical ten-year-old, I thought every detail of a story was significant. At some point, I realized I was boring her and that she kept leaving rooms, hoping I wouldn’t follow. I began testing her limits. I waited for her to say, enough already. If she had, I wouldn’t have blamed her. But she didn’t. I’d love to say I have the same patience with my grandchildren when they prattle on about a movie or video game, but I don’t. I find a way to change the subject. But I didn’t admire Nana because she could do what I could do. I admired her because she could do what I couldn’t do.

Nana Kitty helping my sister and me (far left) with a puzzle. My cousin watches.

Nana loved me even when I behaved like a brat. When I was about eight, I wanted her to buy me a troll doll from a drugstore. I whined and cajoled and dropped a few tears until she folded. She took me back into the store and bought me the doll. She wasn’t happy. She couldn’t afford to be frivolous with her money. She bought us Cracker Jacks because they cost a quarter. The troll doll cost over a dollar. “You’d better not lose that doll,” she snapped. After we walked back to her house, I asked her for a comb and a few bobby pins. I spent the rest of the afternoon rearranging the troll’s purple hair in one hairdo after another. Nana was no longer angry with me. Over the years, I would tell her, “I still have the troll doll with the purple hair.” I wish I could still tell her I have it.

I live by many of Nana’s favorite sayings. (Although I didn’t warm to some of them until I was older.)

1. The early bird gets the worm. (I told her I didn’t want worms.)

2. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. (I was a night owl.)

3. Silence is golden.

4. You win more flies with honey than vinegar. (I told her I didn’t want to be nice to people who were mean to me.)

5. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.

6. A penny saved is a penny earned. (I’ve learned to be a better saver.)

7. Waste not, want not.

Nana’s birthday is January 22. If she were alive, she’d be 107 years old. Funny thing—sometimes, for a moment, I think, I should call Nana. And then I remember, she’s gone. So, I talk to her without a phone.

[Written in response to #bloganuary prompt #6: Who is someone that inspires you and why? For more information click on: Bloganuary.]