My “Writer in Residency” at Costco

This spring I got an email from the publisher of my oral history book, Madison Women Remember Growing Up in Wisconsin’s Capital. They were planning a book signing for Father’s Day for their local authors. Would I be interested in participating?

“But it’s a women’s book,” I said. “Why not Mother’s Day?”

“Too late for that,” was the reply. “Will you do it?” It was a dull day in late winter; committing seemed easy. I agreed to give up two hours on June 14 to sit in a Costco warehouse signing books. I have never been in a Costco.

3080-madison-women-remember-book-L

June 14 arrived. I drove 45 minutes from my eastside home to the west edge of Madison. I entered through a canyon lined with giant inflatable watercraft and coolers and approached a draped table topped with two stacks of Madison Women Remember. Nearby stood a placard on an easel with an image of the book, announcing “Local Author Signing 12-2pm.” A staff person greeted me and seated me with some of those shorty water bottles and some black Sharpies.

costco

Somehow I thought they’d be more of us—a group of people with Wisconsin history books of interest to Fathers, things like Baseball, Fire Departments, Cars. But there was only me.

Only me, in the middle of a stream of consumer America flowing as gently as goldfish in a bowl. I tried good posture and friendly eye contact. Some people, mostly older women, stopped to talk. During lulls I felt the dark pull of my smartphone. Checked some email, followed some links, surfed a little. Then I reprimanded myself. That’s no way for a Local Author to behave!

That’s when it hit me: this is a Writer in Residency. It may be brief and it may be an unusual setting but if Amtrak can have a Writer in Residence, so can Costco. And right now, for the next two hours, that lucky writer is me. So I pulled out a steno pad I always carry with me, and began doing writing exercises.*

Sure enough, as soon as I was publicly writing, more people wanted to talk to me. I sold some books. I had a very intriguing conversation with an older couple from southern India about the difference between religion and spirituality. The husband wants to write a book.

What had felt like penalty for a poor decision months before (I gave up a BEAUTIFUL Saturday for this?) became a relaxed, focused, immersion in an environment that is to me, exotic. I may live in Middle America but I rarely go there. Wisconsin’s capital really can be “77 square miles surrounded by reality” if you play it right.

Arcadia Publishing sent me a satisfaction survey form about the author signing yesterday. I answered it “Satisfied” but suggested next year, they invite me for Mother’s Day. I look forward to my next Writer in Residency at Costco.

- Sarah White

 

*What I wrote:

5 Sense Survey

SOUND: Cash registers beeping beepingbeepingbeeping. Muffled hum of machines–air conditioning? Crackling walkie-talkies of staff. Murmuring people. Rattle of shopping carts. Slap of shoes on polished concrete floor.

SIGHT: Stream of people with giant empty carts coming in the door. Inflateable rafts, pool toys, coolers. World Cup soccer on flat screen TV $479.99. Bose Bluetooth speakers, ad running on loop. People avoiding eye contact with me except little children and women of a certain age. Every 10 minutes or so one buys a book and I sign it.

SMELL: Just a hint of food—warm nuts? Bread? There’s a food court behind me.

TOUCH: Cycling air-conditioning. It gets just warm enough I dampen with sweat, then it kicks in and I feel a breeze of cool air. Coarse black fabric on the table my elbows rest on. Seersucker pants course against my thighs.

TASTE: Bottled water. An Altoid mint, just to have something to report.

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A Boy with a Hammer Does His Part

By  Lawrence Landwehr 

Ever since my mother and I had come to live with her parents on their farm and ranch, I had access to small hand tools such as hand saws, pliers, wrenches, etc. As a boy, the tool I liked most was a hammer. Once taken in hand, the hammer multiplied my arm’s force tenfold and bestowed in me a palatable feeling of power.  And here’s the best part: Everything—Everything needed pounding.

Landwher boy with hammer

One summer day my empowered right arm and I were patrolling for objects needing our attention.   I settled on a bullet from the family’s small arsenal, placed it on a concrete step and pounded on it—BAM, BAM, BAM. The bullet fired, and I heard it strike the concrete and zinggggg into the distance as its tone dropped. At age five I knew that Death had just granted me a second chance.

One might wonder why a small boy would be unsupervised and free to be so creative. My mother was no longer around; she had taken a job out of state. My grandparents were very much present, but were working long and hard raising wheat crops and beef cattle to build their small enterprise into a much larger one.   My contribution to the effort was to entertain myself and not interrupt the adults when they were working. That left me to find ways to pass the day, especially during harvest or roundup times.

What was I to do? No Cat in the Hat would be stopping by. Television could not come to the rescue. If radio had children’s programs, no one told me (but I did hear FDR giving a “Fireside Chat”). Climbing trees was out because our only tree was not shaped for climbing. Going out to play in the neighborhood was not an option because, well, because there was no neighborhood. The nearest neighbor, the Simon family, was five miles away.

One of the Simon children, Jerry, was my age, and on rare occasion, an adult would drive one of us to the other’s home so that he and I could have playtime together.

My most reliable time filler was being outdoors watching the hired hands working and observing my grandfather as he organized the work and solved problems throughout the day. I watched the crop planting and harvesting, care and use of horses, branding and care of livestock, milking a few cows, butchering, sheering of sheep, repairs to equipment, erection of new buildings, etc.

Other ways in which I at age five through eight did my part included

  • churning butter
  • building things from scraps of lumber,
  • dousing hills of large red ants with gasoline and then igniting them
  • helping my grandmother with her small brewery in the basement
  • being alert for rattle snakes
  • reading comic books
  • and, of course, watching paint dry.

At any rate, by adapting well to being alone and finding ways to entertain myself, I did my part building the family financially. The enterprise grew—ultimately into a farming and ranching operation of 10,000 acres. I was so proud of my grandparents! Incidentally, I got my work ethic from seeing their work rewarded. But I have yet to hammer on another bullet, although I’m sure plenty of them need it.

 Notes

  1. The notion that a small boy with a hammer will think that everything needs pounding has been previously noted by others. Psychologist Abraham Maslow saw applicability of this behavioral pattern beyond childhood and wrote that if you only own a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
  2.  In 2013 I was in contact with my old friend, Jerry.
  3.  On the decline in the amount of children’s unsupervised time outdoors , see Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, The Nature of Childhood: Growing up in America Since 1865.

Lawrence J. Landwehr resides in Middleton, Wisconsin and is retired.

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My Lost Cursive (and so much more)

Recalling last spring’s “from cursive to computer” writing prompt caused me to recall my own rocky history with cursive writing–and so much more. -Sarah White

I was born in October of 1956. For first grade, my parents chose for me St. Richard’s Academy on Indianapolis’ near north side, even though we lived 15 miles north in Carmel. I think this was because at about that time my mother began working for a publishing company near that school—and because they would take me while I was still 5, which Carmel’s public school would not.

I loved St. Richards from the moment I entered its gothic pointy-roofed garden gate at age 5 and 11/12ths, wearing my little plaid kilt and a green wool blazer with a heraldic crest embroidered on its chest pocket.

St. Richards gate 2007_07_09

St. Richard’s Acadamy, photographed in July 2007.

The thing about St. Richard’s is that it was Episcopalian and Anglophile in every conceivable way. We had teachers imported from England who taught from textbooks imported from England. From these I learned that “We live on a small island next to a large continent.”

Our teachers had high expectations of 1st graders and we rose to meet them. Our math lessons involved working on times tables and long division as well as addition and subtraction, aided by graph paper to keep our columns neat. We learned French with readings and exercises about “deux soldats du bois.” We learned to write longhand using fountain pens we filled ourselves from small glass bottles. We colored maps of Europe in careful horizontal strokes, long wooden colored pencils gripped in our tiny fists.

1961_St. Richards Totor et Tristan

And then the year was over, and the next year my parents transferred me to the public school in Carmel for second grade. Here the students only printed their alphabets, using stubby pencils. The teacher took away my fountain pen and forbade me to write longhand. No elegant colored pencils here, only crayons. No long division, no times tables, no French.

And so I went into my vivid imagination, and I didn’t come out until sometime in the fourth grade, when I realized with terror that I had forgotten everything I’d learned in the first grade, and failed to take in any new information since.

A mental habit of absent-mindedness and a fear of math are the permanent scars of my early education. (And a love of calligraphy and fine fountain pens.)

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From Cursive to Computer

There has been a lot of handwringing  about the demise of cursive writing this year. An NPR piece about it aired as I drove to teach the first session of a memoir writing workshop back in March. It inspired me with a topic for our first in-class exercise. I gave my students the prompt, “from cursive to computer” and then challenged them to write facts (1 minute), memories (3 minutes), and meaning (1 minute). – Sarah White

From Cursive to Computer

By Bonnie Berens

I am around six or seven years old. I am crouching in my wooden, two-piece desk afraid to raise my hand for help from “the penguin.”

My transfer from Lincoln Avenue School to St. Cyril & Methodius Catholic School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was highly traumatic for me. I could not remember how to spell my last, long—14 letter—Polish name. Niedzialkowski. I did raise my hand, and Sister Mary Eulogia came to my side and kindly printed my name, then wrote it in cursive for me.

I felt proud that I was so brave to have raised my hand in fear, and have such a positive response. I face my adversaries straight on now—a little scary still, to “youngsters” who are my bosses.

Bonnie Ann (Niedzialkowski) Berens

Berense From Curvsive to Computer-cr

“Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.” –New York Times, June 2, 2014.

 

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In Madison? Accelerate your memoir writing in August

71559675-croppedI am offering a “lite” version of my “Start Writing Your Memoir” workshop later this summer. We will meet for 5 nights July 31 through August 28, 6:45pm-8:45pm at Pinney Branch Library, 204 Cottage Grove Rd. For a description of the workshop, visit my website’s Upcoming Events page.

Registration opens July 17th. To register, call the library at 224-7100 or visit the library’s events page. 

 

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Luigi and the Signora

The season of vicarious wanderlust concludes with this tale from one afternoon in Venice,  early March 2001.

By Sarah White

Moving through the tiny alleys, bursting into squares that are not square but multi-sided, we walked the labyrinth, all six sestiere, the dense wrinkles of Rialto and the avenues of Dorso Duro, the public park at the tip of the Castello and the stark Fondamento Novo in Cannareggio to the north, where the hospital sits conveniently across from the cemetery island.

If we were in a labyrinth, then at its heart lay the Piazza Santa Maria di Nuova, with Luigi’s bookstore and Signora Von Block’s apartment around the corner.

 

We had walked and walked for days and days, and once or twice we’d gone into a bookstore because I was on a mission. I wanted to see if there were do-it-yourself business books here, like the ones I write. (I authored Do It Yourself Advertising in 1993, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Marketing in 1997.) So far I’d found nothing of the kind; the closest thing was computer books. So I vowed that if we found one more bookstore, I’d burst through the language barrier and ask about “fai-da-te” (do it yourself).

I had armed myself with a photo of myself with my books, and I pulled it from my purse as I approached the store. It did not look promising at the start; a shop so crowded, with so many of the books stacked, not shelved. Half the store consisted of milk crates set outside, a crazy mix of new and used books in many languages.

2001_Sarah with CIG-Marketing

Coming from the light of the square into the dim interior, it took me a few moments to realize there was no proprietor around. But then a man came in the door—returning from wherever he shares espressos with his fellow retailers between customers, a charming and practical custom.

I began my spiel, “sono una scrittriche, ho scritto quelli,” offering my photo. “Fai-da-te, advertising, marketing,” stringing together phrases, and hoping for sense. “Is there such a thing in Italy?” He shakes his head, no, well maybe how-to for computers, or study guides to prepare for state tests. He knows a woman, with connections in publishing, perhaps she would know more… But really no, nothing “how-to” for business here. (We are using perhaps 2/3 Italian and 1/3 English to accomplish this communication.)

“Maybe I have your book,” he says, and takes me back outside, burrows through a crate, and produces (in English) an outdated copy of The Photoshop Bible. “No, sorry, not mine. Thank you very much.”

Then he points me to a lovely little children’s book, watercolors telling a tale about a nymph and a catfish, with text in both English and Italian. “Sit over there if you like,” he points to a bench, “read it, if you like, you buy it, if not, enjoy with my compliments.” Jim has found a Dylan Dog comic he wants to buy. I look at the fairy tale book for a few moments and say “yes, I want it, please.” As he gives us our change, he says, “I am good at this, see? I don’t need ‘do-it-yourself’ marketing.” A good chuckle shared; he has surprisingly light twinkly eyes set deep in his olive face. I ask his name; Luigi.

Luigi

Then as we are leaving, he says, “wait, let me try the signora, she lives right around the corner. Maybe she can help you.” He starts to leave. When I don’t follow, he grabs the shoulder of my coat and makes to drag me along. “Venga, venga.” So Jim and I follow him around the corner, where he rings a doorbell, exchanges a few words with an intercom. “Ultimo piano? Si?” The door buzzes, and Luigi says encouragingly “Ultimo piano, top floor,” then takes off back toward his shop. There stand Jim and I, exchanging a look like a couple of deer caught in headlights, before we push through the door.

We wind around two flights of steps in the shadowy dark, up past landings crowded with dark furniture and plants, coming into light as we approach the “ultimo piano.” I see an oldish woman in a wrapper leaning over the balustrade.

“Se parla inglese?” I ask.

“I should, I’m an American,” she laughs. What relief!

She shows us in to her small living room, sits down, and without pause begins to talk. Her husband was a writer, wrote books, magazine articles—whatever work he found, especially if there was an advance, but that was long ago… “We had wanderlust. We made Venice our base, but we went all over the world.”

“Sarah’s parents did that too,” said Jim, “They were writers, travelled and wrote, around the south.”

“For Ford Magazine,” I volunteered.

She looked impressed. “We never wrote for Ford. The magazine we worked for most was called ‘Mailman Stag,’ but it wasn’t what you think. We wrote adventure, true crime stories. We’d hear about a murder and we’d hop in the car and go off to interview the eye-witnesses.”

She told more tales, about more travel with a companion after her husband died, and a more settled life in Venice, now that the companion has died. I stole glimpses around the room—filled with books, plants, objet d’art, and a stereo that must have been very expensive when it was new, perhaps 1960. “And Luigi is always bringing me people like you, people with manuscripts and ideas… he thinks I have more connections than I have. I still know a few people in publishing in New York, they take my calls—Venice has a certain cachet.”

I took this opportunity to pose my question, bringing out my photo of me with my books. “Oh, nothing like this here, never,” she said. “The Italian people are very clever. They figure things out for themselves. They produced Leonardo DaVinci, didn’t they? They will never go to a book for advice.”

“Thank you, that answers my question,” and I accept the verdict. There will be no lucrative consulting ventures based on promoting my books here.

I offered her a business card, and the photo. “Add these to your collection of strange people Luigi has brought you,” I said.

“Ah, Luigi… he likes to seem like he has connections, and he likes to bring me people—sort of as presents.” She paused, then “He could If I would, if you know what I mean.” She smiled slyly. I was suddenly reminded of the way some people’s cats bring them dead mice.

We thanked her again, backed out of the apartment and down the dark stairs and back out into the light of the piazza and the dark of the alleys…. to walk and think about these two lives going on, in Venice 2001. Luigi who could if Signora Von Block would. What a comfort that understanding must be to them both.

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Underwater Surprises

The season of vicarious wanderlust on True Stories Well Told rolls on through end of June.

By Rita Nygren

Not far from Cake, Alaska, we woke up at 4am to the sound of a dozen eagles yelling at each other as they scrambled for long unseen delicacies.

Eagles don’t tend to be social birds, and it is a rare joy to find more than a mated pair together, but that morning, as far as possible from the community of Cake and still being on the same island, they were flocking.  And rather than it being a joy, I just wished they would shut up and let me sleep – which hard enough with the bright light of day shining through the tent walls.  At this hour.

However, it was a spring tide, when the moon and sun are exerting maximum pulls on the oceans and the waterline, therefore, was super low.  Rocks that aren’t normally exposed, are, and the eagles were happy to have a chance at the muscles and tidbits in the puddles and tide pools.

Normally, Scott and I would have been out there with his long-lensed cameras, peering at the scavenging birds through a hasty blind of convenient ferns, but today, we could barely roll over and complain.  Summer nights in Alaska are, above all, short, and the previous day included lots of sea kayaking in the strange to us currents and winds of Frederick Sound.  My arms ached, and I was definitely not ready to roll out of the sleeping bag yet.

But there was sunlight diffusing through the tent walls.  That too was a rare thing.

A local lady at a national park headquarters had told us “You know what we do in Alaska when it rains?  The same thing we’d do if it wasn’t raining. Cause otherwise, we would never do anything.”  She was on the way to watch her son’s little league game, while we’d been wimpy drowned rats.

So it’s early, it’s bright, we can’t sleep through the breakfast of our nearest neighbors, and it’s going to be a gorgeous morning.

“We  could lounge around in the tent all day.” I said.

“No you couldn’t.  You’ll get antsy and decide to start cleaning gear or something.” Scott replied.

“It’s not like we’re going to have that many days this nice while we’re here.”

“Right, and like you’re going to spend it on the beach?”

“How about a nice gentle paddle, just up to the cove to the north?  We could see if we can find that waterfall, and have a picnic.”

“I suppose that a short trip will work out some kinks.”

Cursing the Midwestern work ethic, we made breakfast and did camp chores while the eagles finished their dessert and flew off.  The tandem kayak on the beach needed a little outfitting, and the camera gear tucked safely in its clever transparent dry bag case – you can work most of the controls and the huge lensed SLR stays safe from the corrosive salt water.  A few trawlers passed a couple miles out in the sound but clearly visible from our shoreline camp.

As were a handful of tall black fins to the south.

We looked at each other, and, practically in unison, said “I could sprint a mile out into the sound.”

After a flurry of paddles and neoprene, we were afloat and heading straight towards the trawlers who were beginning to play out their salmon nets.  If the salmon schools were out here, that explained the orcas.  A naturalist once told me that to an orca, salmon was the equivalent of chocolate, a treat for the blackfish.

There’s a couple other things I’d learned about orcas from her: first, that it is illegal for any boat to approach the whales, but not illegal for a whale to approach a boat.  And second, that the whales have a tendency to surface to breathe three times before diving deep.

So there we are, bobbing in the waves in a thin fiberglass hull, paddles resting on our laps watching killer whales approaching from the south.  One spouts and slides under the water, then shortly reappears & blows about a quarter mile off or port, and descends, and then does a final appearance and breath and disappears into the deeps.  You can line up the three points and have a good guess as to where the whale is heading, so we turn the kayak to paddle that direction, really hard.

When she comes up to breath with a soft boom, we drop our paddles and drift.  It’s up to her how close she wants to get to us, and it appears that several hundred yards work fine for her.  Three blows, and down.  The rest of her pod is scattered east of us in the sound, more or less on the same rhythm.

We sprint while the sea is clear of fins, and rest and enjoy spotting them as they surface.  And then Scott makes a sound of dread.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“The camera is fogged up.”

We have a rule around salt water:  the big, expensive camera does not for any reason come out of the dry bag.  “I have a clean lens cloth sealed in this bag,” he says.

“I’ll steady the boat,” I offer, and he sets his paddle down, takes off his neoprene gloves and starts carefully opening watertight seals and cleaning lenses.  Being in the bow of the tandem, I couldn’t turn to watch him, so I counterweighted when he shifted and watched a young male surface and blow a football field away.

“Are you ready yet?”

“Not quite.”

A little bit later, the tall black fin slice through the water only 50 yards away.  He’s heading in our general direction.  Orcas, from nose to tail, tend to be about 20 feet long, which is about the size of our craft.

“Almost there,” Scott says behind me.

A splash mere feet off the bow makes me freeze.  Thoughts rapidly crossed my brain:

First: The orca is breaching right in front of me and is going to smash this tiny boat.

Second: Whew, that is not a whale, it’s a salmon.

Third: WHAT JUST CHASED IT OUT OF THE WATER?

At this point, Scott says “Alright I’m set,” and looks up.  I can barely breath.  There was no third blow; the whale kept right on swimming.

© 2005 D. Scott Frey • visit http://photo.fx4.net

© 2005 D. Scott Frey • visit http://photo.fx4.net

We continued to parallel the pod, but at the tip of the next island to the north, we noticed a whale watching cruise was anchored.  We had the orcas with us, though they were edging ahead and aiming for the east channel.  Everyone on the cruise ship was looking west.

There were humpbacks here, and they were bubble netting.

Since orcas have been known to make a meal out of their humpy cousins, we were at this point happy to watch them swim off to the east.  And we were happy to sidle up next to a private fishing boat, since the humpies are about 45 feet long, and we were feeling particularly small and fragile.

As we watched, a large crescent of bubbles, then a circle of them, appeared in the smooth waters.  Shortly after, a humongous head boiled up through the middle, straining out the water and swallowing all the krill, be fore flopping back down into the sea to digest and then take a turn at blowing the net for its kin.

We realized how lucky we were to have caught this act.  And then we realized that we were miles from camp and extremely tired.  And sore, don’t forget sore!  We soon limped with the tide back to our beach.

But the day had held a rare treat of underwater surprises.

 

© 2014. Rita Nygren is a database miner and risk-averse adrenaline junkie living in Oregon when not traveling to interesting wilderness locations. 

 

 

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