Jack Valenti – Six Degrees of Separation

By Cam French

In 1990 I was employed as executive personal assistant to Barry Hirsch, an  entertainment attorney and power broker to the rich and famous. The same talented folk who populate the headlines of newspapers and tabloids alike. This type of position might offer the occasional glamorous screening or entre to a private event. Most of the time, though, it entails demanding work and a plethora of very unglamorous responsibilities—event planning, managing schedules, travel arrangements and other roles that in my case included family members. Discreet behavior in all endeavors was Rule #1.

On this early Saturday evening, I’d been waiting for Jack Valenti outside the Orion building on Century Park East. He was to pick up an envelope Barry had left for him in his office. Barry’s manner had appeared edgy when he mentioned the envelope and he made certain I was clear as to the time and place for the pick-up. The building was on lockdown for the weekend, as was Barry’s office.  I felt odd standing alone on the mostly deserted Century Park East Boulevard.

Century City was originally the private ranch of early cowboy star, Tom Mix. That was before William Fox of Fox Film Corporation bought the land and built a movie studio that eventually became 20th Century Fox. In the late 1950s, when the studio suffered several financial reversals plus the staggering and ruinous costs of producing “Cleopatra,” the studio sold off the backlot to developers who built the “city within a city.” Century City is a bustling beehive during the week and a tomb on the weekend, eerily silent against the backdrop of looming skyscrapers.

Century City Twin Towers

Jack Valenti made his appearance around 6:00 p.m. when his sleek, black limousine glided up to the curb. A very dapper-looking fellow with alert and beaming brown eyes, he was immaculately dressed in a navy blue pin-striped suit. His hand shot out welcoming mine, a strong and self-assured handshake, one used to power.

Valenti had one of those great smiles you never forget—as if you are the most important person in his universe. Napoleonic in stature—what some might even call diminutive—he owned a large and charismatic personality, a very keen eye, an intuitive mind all imbued with a high nimble energy. Charming and affable, he was also all business. Someone once praised Valenti for his morals and his social skills; one described him as “smiley” and “able to charm the horns off a Billy goat.” I saw all that and more in the face studying mine. The cunning that had brought him so far in politics and the shark-infested waters of the entertainment business was also apparent.

Jack Valenti had been a successful Texas businessman before joining Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the White House as a media consultant. After three years in Washington, he was named head of the Motion Picture Association, where he served as Hollywood’s chief lobbyist from 1966 to 2004. Valenti became the distinguished public face of the movie and television production industry.  He devised the film-rating system, restructured the Hays Act, and was one of its strongest advocates. His tanned face was a fixture at the annual Academy Awards broadcast.

As the elevator climbed to the 18th floor, he and I chatted amiably though minimally. I reflected on how close I stood to history and my mind’s eye couldn’t help revisiting that famous photograph taken on Air Force One. The iconic one that captured all the sorrow and solemnity of those first unbelievably terrible hours in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The event that shook our nation to its core.

Standing in the background, Jack Valenti (one of only twenty-six people on Air Force One) stands just to the right of Lady Bird Johnson. His dark eyes wide with shock and disbelief as he absorbs this monumental moment in U.S. history. That moment when Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office as the 36th President of the United States. A stunned and sorrow-filled Jacqueline Kennedy stands on Johnson’s left, a bleeding rose in her blood-spattered pink Chanel suit.

Jack Valenti (right) with Lyndon B. Johnson as he took the oath of office.

Secrets are routine business in entertainment and politics. Nevertheless, by then, I knew there were no real secrets in either enterprise; that more often than not someone else is always on another extension listening to those “private” conversations. I also knew this because during my employment with Barry, I was the one on the other end of the extension listening to deals being made, film stars’ complaints about contracts or broken hearts, studio heads, money changing hands, and occasionally a career-ruining secret was disclosed for which the tabloids paid large sums of cash to traitorous informants.

The same applies to the envelope meant for only Jack Valenti’s eyes. He gave a jaunty wave as the limousine drew away from the curb outside the Orion building. Meanwhile, Jack Valenti held the power in his hands to someone’s future within that manila envelope.

© 2022 Cam French

Cam began her creative life in early childhood and now works primarily in oil or acrylic mediums every day. As a painter she’s participated in group shows and one-woman exhibits. She is a past member of The Madison Watercolor Society and The Madison Art Guild. She is also writing a memoir. Cam and her husband, Jim, live in the Dane County area in a 136 year old brick farmhouse. Both enjoy working in their large garden.

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A New Book Is Born!

By Sarah White

Books are like babies, as far as my experience goes (which includes birthing a few books of my own and midwifing quite a few others, but no babies).

How so? The publishing process takes about 9 months in most cases, and people look with amazement and joy upon the result. Nothing in our culture comes close to holding the cultural cache of producing a human being–with the exception of a book. That’s why I’m excited to welcome Homeward: Personal Stories on the Search for Belonging to the Guided Autobiography family.

Weighing in at 10.7 ounces, 195 pages, and 49 co-authors, this is the second anthology in the Birren Collection. Its older sibling is Onward!: True Life Stories of Challenges, Choices & Change. Onward!, published in November 2022.

Onward! consisted of short essays written by Guided Autobiography instructors. With Homeward, the Birren Center opened the call for submissions to students of GAB instructors as well. I forwarded the announcement to everyone who has taken a Guided Autobiography workshop with me over the years. I’m pleased that two of my students, Josh Feyen and Cam French, had stories accepted for inclusion. We will celebrate their success at my First Person salons on December 5th/6th, and with a talk at Barnes & Noble West Towne on January 15th at 2pm.

These anthologies, compiled from essays written in response to prompts, demonstrate the power of personal stories to entertain, impart wisdom, and connect people across generations and cultures. Onward is a collection of personal stories about life-changing moments. (I am grateful to have had an essay included.) Homeward offers unique insights on the universal search for belonging.

The books are published independently by the Birren Center for Autobiographical Writing, through which the authors are certified to teach their classes. “Our instructors are really incredible people,” said Birren Center Director Cheryl Svensson. “They come from all over the world, all walks of life, and they have the most amazing stories—as do their students.”

Sales from the anthologies directly benefit the Birren Center to help them start and support Guided Autobiography (“GAB”) classes in communities around the world. “The purpose of GAB is to help people see that memoir writing isn’t reserved for the rich and the famous,” Svensson said. “It isn’t just for people who are good writers. The act of writing down the story of your life belongs to every person, because every person has a story and every story counts.”

What Is Guided Autobiography? I’ve articulated it previously on this blog; see my post “Guided Autobiography: The Magic of Small-Group Reminiscence Writing.” Why am I so passionate about sharing it? I see it change people’s lives. My student Barb McCarthy described that well in a post, Branching Points – A Fork in the Road.

This unique writing methodology, in which trained instructors use themed prompts, short writing assignments, and small supportive groups, unlocks insights that help us better understand our past experiences and make wiser decisions for the future. I know of nothing more useful than a compass when one is headed into the unknown. Your writing in a GAB workshop becomes that compass.

My next Guided Autobiography workshop starts January 25 in Madison: this is an in-person workshop.

  • When: This 10-week workshop meets Wednesday mornings, 9:30-11:30 a.m. Central, from 1/25/23 through 4/5/2023 (no class on 3/15–Spring Break!)
  • Where: Truax-Protective Services Room 220
  • Fee: $205
  • To register: Click here for a registration form; enter class #63414. Or call 608.258.2301, Option 2.

And hey. In the meantime, get a copy of Homeward, Onward, or both, and curl up with some true personal stories that will stimulate your own reminiscences and restore your faith in the human spirit.

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Second Day on the Farm

By Joshua Feyen

Pictured are the author, far right in his Aunt Sharon’s lap, brothers Jason and Mathew, mother Andrea and father John, and cousins Shannon and Erin.

In November, 1976 my parents purchased a 140-acre farm with pastures, woods and cropland situated on top of the rolling hills of Southwest Wisconsin’s driftless region. The day after the closing and unloading everything into house, my mom, my two brothers and I, and my aunt and two cousins sat in my relative’s Volkswagen camper van, cradling mugs of hot pea soup in our hands. It was windy with grey skies and flecks of icy snow blowing in the air. Despite the weather, my dad and my uncle eagerly tore apart an old farm building, heaping the rotten walls and roofing onto a huge burn pile. Removing the collapsed building made room for a low-slung shed to keep the family’s new pig operation shaded in the summer, and warm on days like this. It was the first of many demolitions and constructions over the next 42 years. Eventually my brothers and I would help with these projects, but on this chilly day, I was just five years old, and my brothers three and a half. Our job was to stay warm in the van.

While listening to “Free To Be You And Me,” I stared out the van windows at the land around us. From our vantage point in the driveway I looked south, where I watched our neighbor gather the last of his corn before snowfall made his fields inaccessible. We would eventually meet the bachelor farmer Ray and his parents, borrow tools and implements and marvel, enviously, at his heated garage.

I looked east, down into the hollow where a four-acre hobby farm was tucked below our own. My grandparents would eventually buy it and retire there for just a few years until my grandfather died, after which my grandmother returned to her roots in Milwaukee and more company than living alone in the country had provided.

I looked north, toward our new but very old house and the hill that rose gently behind it to the highest point on our farm. We would eventually tear down rotted parts, insulate it and build two additions. But for now, the north wind drafted through the thin walls. There were just two windows on the north side of the house, and after moving in, I frequently found frost on the inside of the hall window, confirming that it really was that cold in my bedroom at night.

And finally I looked west, a 15-mile uninterrupted view across distant hills and valleys. As the sun set below the far-off horizon, I saw for the first time a string of twinkling lights that I didn’t know it at the time, but were the streetlights of the village where my mom would eventually find work as a teacher in an adjacent school district.

One of the reasons I could see our neighbors and the distant horizons in all four directions was that the farmyard was treeless. There were four dead elms along the road, oddly topped about 10 feet from the ground. My father explained they were American Elm trees, killed by a little bug that came from somewhere named Dutch.

The following spring, we tore down the tall stumps and planted trees around the house. We started with rows of white pine and cedar to the north to protect the house from winter’s arctic wind. We planted a single row of cedars along to the west to provide privacy and a sound barrier from the adjacent road. My mom enjoyed the view to the south, so we added a few low shrubs so the sun could shine on the house. We planted a fast-growing poplar tree to the east to shade the only flat stretch of yard on our hilltop homestead. Over the course of 42 years, we planted 150 trees around the house, and more than 10,000 pine, oak, walnut, ash, and black cherry in rows between farm fields. But that was all to come, for now, I returned to my pea soup and thought back to what we had just left behind and wondered what was ahead.

I have a few fond memories of Waukesha, Wisconsin where my parents had beautifully restored a farmhouse on a couple acres of suburban land. We played with the neighbor boys under a huge tree where my dad strung up a swing. There was plenty of room for my mom’s gardening interest. It was an easy drive to my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who were sprinkled throughout the Milwaukee area. My dad taught high school shop, and once my brothers and I started school, my mom could have returned to her own teaching career. But our family took a much different path.

In the 1970s, the back-to-the-land movement was in full swing, and young adults, often with children in tow, moved to rural parts of our country to make a living and raise a family. While this urban-to-rural movement occurred across the United States in the late 1960s through the 1980s, there were some pockets where this activity was particularly noticeable; northern Missouri, parts of rural Oregon, and the southwest corner of Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s Driftless region offered hilly but affordable farmland for those who wanted to raise animals or truck farm, and the deep valleys and long country driveways for those who sought privacy.

Many sought to escape the Viet Nam war, either dodging it or the repercussions of having been part of it. Others wanted to avoid urban violence, crime, and as my mother often cited as her reason for moving, “drugs in the city.” Yet this corner of Wisconsin was close enough to Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago where many of our soon-to-be friends could return to visit friends and family they left behind.

So, with a few copies of Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog in hand, my parents seized upon their dream to raise my brothers and I in a rural setting. After the early sunset dwindled and flashlight batteries died of exhaustion or from the cold, my dad and uncle called it a day. My brothers and I bid farewell to our relatives and they returned three hours east to their home in Milwaukee. And we started the long process of turning this house into a home, this farm into a source of income, and this corner of Wisconsin into somewhere to grow up and become a local.

© 2022 Josh Feyen

Josh Feyen was raised on a farm in southwest Wisconsin, went to college in Milwaukee, lived abroad for four years on three continents, and now finds himself with stories to tell. In the middle of 2021, Josh set about writing 50 short memoir stories in his 50th year. Sharing this story with truestorieswelltold.com is an unexpected surprise; the main focus of Josh’s 50 in 50 writing journey is to share what he’s learned with his four teenage nieces and nephew. Josh lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Becoming a Grown Up

By Sarah White

This was written in response to the Madison Moth StorySlam prompt “Grown”. I took that in the sense of “grown up.” The format of the Moth is spoken word, so imagine me telling this to an audience, no notes or props. I chose this week to share this, in honor of its subject, who died on October 31, 2020.

How many of you have had children? All that constantly being vigilant, all that responsibility for providing what they need–Did that make you feel grown-up?

Those of us who never had children—we never had to grow up. We never had to choose between something we wanted and something our child needed. We could feel young forever. It’s been great. At least it was great until my mother came.

Sometime in my thirties, when I decided babies weren’t for me, I had realized that taking care of my mom someday was likely to be my only run at caregiving. It was early 2018 and she had been living in Florida for two decades when she called and said, “Find me an assisted living facility near you.”

Oh shit. I’m pregnant. I have a 95-year-old baby on the way. It’s time to grow up.

Sarah and Jean, April 2018, shortly after Jean’s arrival

If you’ve had kids, you know what comes next. When you find out you’re pregnant, you buy stuff.

I raced out to find a facility for my mom and buy everything she’d need. It was clear I’d need a different car—a minivan that could accommodate her walker. Yes, my big grown-up baby came with a big grown-up stroller.

The first thing I had to do was figure out how to amuse her. The facility took care of my mother’s physical needs, but I became responsible for all the rest—social director, personal secretary, life coach. She was a part-time job.

My mother hated the age segregation of her new world, so, like a young mom finding playgroups for her toddler, we sought out places where we’d find families. All the scenes I’d avoided by not having kids myself–Farmer’s Market. Olbrich Gardens, any community festival—we were there. It seemed like my big grown-up baby was feeding on the energy of all those youngsters. They were keeping her alive.

At about six months in, I went to a psychic. “How long is this going to go on?” I asked. “Three years,” the cards told her. Okay, deep breath. I can do that.

If you’ve been a parent, I bet you’ve experienced that same feeling. In just a few short years, I can drop my baby off at Pre-Kindergarten. Okay, I visited hospice facilities, not nursery schools. But still, same feeling. I tried to pace myself and stay positive.

Keeping my mom amused was important, but keeping her safe was the Prime Directive. Like toddlers, she was a master at dashing off suddenly. (You parents have lived in fear of that toddler dash, haven’t you.)

In spite of using a walker, she could still achieve startling bursts of speed. Thanks to glaucoma, her eyesight was terrible. Fast and blind, time and again I caught her just before she dashed into disaster.

Until the time I didn’t. I was picking her up for a doctor’s appointment. Another oldster had just fallen in the vestibule. My mom sprinted past the accident scene like it might be contagious, and before I knew it, got several yards ahead of me. Then she misjudged a curb, fell, and broke her ankle. It was on her 96th birthday.

I felt as awful as any mother of a toddler whose child got broken. I was two-and-half years into my caregiver role, and I was flagging.

Then came COVID.  

We couldn’t get out and feed off the energy of young people any more. My mom began flagging, too. She agreed to enroll in hospice, mostly because they promised more visitors—nurses, volunteers, and a chaplain. But under COVID, only the nurse materialized.

Still, it proved to be a good thing. When my mom began sinking into another bout of pneumonia, our nurse arranged admission to the hospice inpatient facility. An ambulance took her there, me following in the minivan with the big grown-up stroller.

My mom, in her semi-conscious state, seemed intrigued by the adventure. She liked the attention from the nurses.  

I left that evening, exhausted and hopeful that she’d get what she needed. I was just like a mom driving away from the kindergarten after the kid runs off without a backward look.

As part of admission, they tested my mom for COVID. When I returned the next morning, they had the result—positive. An administrator hustled me out of the facility and sent me home to quarantine. I forgot to even say goodbye.

Four days later, she died.

And just like that, the need for me to be a grown-up was over.

©  2022 Sarah White

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Things that Go Grrrr

By Marlene Samuels

Note, Marlene assures me that 1) this is a true memory, confirmed with her siblings, and 2) her parents are not the type who would ever scare their children for fun. Draw what conclusions you will. – Sarah White

My tenth year, Beggar’s Night fell on Saturday. As luck would have it, that Saturday evening our parents had, uncharacteristically, left us alone longer than usual so they could attend their closest friend’s birthday party. And that night our judgment would undergo its greatest test. Beggar’s Night was the long-anticipated annual opportunity among us inner-city kids to dress in rags, play outrageous pranks and go begging for money, not candy. It was the version of Halloween in our old Montreal neighborhood. Darkness enveloped the city disappointingly early, providing a perfect foil for our shenanigans.

Jake, my older brother, was my hero. He also was the epitome of great wisdom, a teller of truth in all things, but most of all he was a spectacular storyteller. It made no difference to me whether his tales were verifiable or not.

We’d just finished our T.V. dinners and repaired to the bedroom we shared for an interminable game of Monopoly. “Your move,” I said, looking up. His face was contorted, frozen with terror. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. “You moving or what?”

“Huh, what? Did you hear that?” He whispered.

“Hear what? I didn’t hear anything. Move already!”

“There it is again!” This time I did hear it. We both stiffened as if playing Statues, not Monopoly. Loud clanking on windows, like fingernails against glass, raised our hairs. The eerie sound ricocheted off our bedroom’s plaster walls. Then, for one instant, we saw it — whatever “it” was. A massive head with pointed ears glided past our window as though floating on air. Just as suddenly as it appeared, it vanished from view.

“I’ll bet one of my moronic friends is playing a prank,” said Jake, bravely, “and when I find out who, I’m going to brain him!”

“I bet this is a prank. I’ll help you brain him!” I said, totally unconvinced.

“You saw that, right?” He whispered. Dull heavy footfalls on our back porch echoed throughout the house and with it came animal-like, blood-curdling growls. Whatever “it” was now glided past the window in the opposite direction. Still on the floor with Monopoly, we stared toward the window anticipating another glimpse and sensing our vulnerability.

“Quick, get away from the window in case it looks in and sees us,” I whispered. “Let’s crawl  into the kitchen to the telephone.”

“I’m with you,” Jake whispered. I crawled combat style, across the floor into the hallway. He followed. Single file, we shimmied toward the kitchen. Once there, still on my knees, I stretched my arm up as far as I could manage to hit the light switch and turn the overhead off. It was near pitch-black and we’d convinced ourselves we were invisible. The only phone in our flat rested on its telephone stand in the kitchen but there was a problem: it was opposite the backdoor.

Again, we saw it, heard it, and, holding our breaths, riveted against the wall. We stared at the glass door toward the back porch. It was right outside! Its fully visible head created an other-worldly silhouette through the lace curtains onto the kitchen wall. Without any doubt, its head was larger than any human’s we’d ever seen. We shivered trying, unsuccessfully, to flatten ourselves even more against the wall.

“Holy God, it’s rattling the door!” Jake said, his voice strained. “What’ll we do?”

“We’ll call the police, that’s what,” I whispered, louder than I’d intended. “Then we’ll crawl to our room and hide under our beds until they get here.”

“And exactly how will you do that, you idiot? The phone’s on the other side of the back door, remember? Let’s just crawl to our room and I mean right now. We’ll hide under our beds. Besides, Mom and Dad should be home soon.”

We reversed direction and once more, combat-crawled — this time from the kitchen through the hallway back to our bedroom. Our eyes darted behind us every few seconds as though doing so held special powers to prevent “it” from coming through the door until we’d gotten to what we’d considered safety: under our beds.  Bumps and multi-tonal howls accelerated along with our terror. Paralyzed with fear, we debated whether our hiding place was a wise one. The racket continued but with one advantage: it was a beacon that alerted us of the creature’s location while it traversed our flat’s exterior — round and round and round it went.

An eternity later — one hour in reality, we heard the welcoming jangling of keys at the front door. Our parents had arrived. Both were beyond delighted by our enthusiastic greetings. Jake and I vied for their attention as we relayed the hair-raising experiences of our evening amidst Mom’s dubious expressions. “My goodness, such imaginations you two have!” She chided. “Wherever did you come up with such craziness?”

The next morning, Sunday, we slept in. Dad left to buy smoked salmon, bagels and cream cheese. When he returned, he set the feast on the kitchen table tuned our radio to his favorite classical station but, before taking his seat. We were in the midst of enjoying our favorite weekend breakfast when ear-piercing staccato horns blared from the radio interrupting Mozart with their demand for our attention. In unison, all four of us stared at the radio’s front as though the announcer had just arrived in our kitchen to present his news.

“Attention! WCBC brings you this critical update. Following a month-long manhunt, police have captured two escapees from Douglas Hospital for the Insane, ‘Grizzly-Bear McDaniels’ and companion, ‘Freaky Fred Fournier.’ McDaniels’s capture will put an extremely anxious Montreal at ease. Heavily armed when captured, he’s extremely dangerous and notorious for biting children to death while dressed in a Grizzly-Bear costume.”

©  2022 Marlene Samuels

Marlene holds a Ph.D., from University of Chicago. A research sociologist by training, she writes creative non-fiction by preference. Currently, she is completing her book entitled, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story.  She is coauthor of The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, and author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact-Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers. Her essays and stories have been published widely in anthologies, journals, and online.  (www.marlenesamuels.com)

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Bee-lieve It!

By Seth Kahan

Kaya, my canine companion

This essay recently appeared in Seth’s “Monday Morning Mojo” e-newsletter.

In my thirties, I trained in search and rescue and got my Wilderness First Responder certificate, the industry standard for professional guides and trip leaders. I was motivated to do this because I loved the outdoor backcountry and had already gotten seriously lost once in Superior National Forest, Minnesota. That scared me enough that I refreshed my map and compass skills and enrolled in these other classes.

I carry a supplemented first aid kit with me and try to be careful so I don’t hurt myself. But, sometimes, things happen.

On my last camping trip, I was just settling down to meditate after my first night in the woods when I heard my canine companion, Kaya, whipping back and forth. I knew in an instant that she had gotten into a beehive. I was up in an instant swatting her, getting her lead unhooked so she could run away, swatting bees off of me, and running away myself.

The bees were on both of us. I threw Kaya in the river and jumped in myself. After several submersions, the bees were gone. Then I started getting dizzy. I was worried it was an anaphylactic shock, but as I found out later, it was just a lot of bee stings. I returned to the tent, ripped open my first aid kit, and ate two Benadryl. Then I packed only essentials and left for the ER.

The bee toxins caught up with me first.

I spent an hour on my back in delirium. It was highly entertaining and reminded me of my college days, except there was this nagging concern about being in mortal danger. Kaya camped out next to me while I was down. After an hour of lucid dreaming, I got myself up and out of the woods. I threw Kaya in the jeep and headed back for the grid; it was about a 30-minute drive. I found the closest ER and headed over as soon as I got online. They were empty except for me, kind, and took care of me.

After inspecting me and taking my vital signs, they kept me for observation for three hours before sending me out with some steroids and significant antihistamines in my system. They also gave me an EpiPen for my first aid kit. I discovered they are good even if you don’t have an anaphylactic shock.

I checked into a wonderful tiny house overlooking the mountains and a lake near Canada. I took two nights off to watch myself for any side effects from the bee stings. There were none. The next day the welts started disappearing.

Kaya and I returned to find the tent, sleeping bag, and supplies in good shape. We very carefully broke camp and moved deeper inland, away from the underground nests, which were numerous around my first site. Now that I knew what to look for, I saw them everywhere.

We had a blissful remainder of our trip, camping near large rock outcroppings up and down the North Fork of the Bouqet River, covered in waterfalls and swimming holes.

Very happy I had Benadryl with me. I had added that to my first aid kit. This fall, I’ll be taking another wilderness first responder course. Is there something you like to do that adds a little assurance to your life?

©  2022 Seth Kahan

Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) helps leaders take on Grand Challenges, wicked problems that require a social movement to be successfully addressed. But he can still hang out and tell stories. Subscribe to his “Monday Morning Mojo” to receive a weekly blast of good energy.

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A word, any word…

By Suzy Beal

Something strange has been happening here in my home lately. The communication between my husband and me has been falling apart.

At first, I thought it was because we just weren’t paying attention to each other. Then I wondered if it was our age and perhaps just not hearing each other the way we used to. Maybe it’s because we know each other so well that we feel we know what the other person is going to say and so we don’t listen.

We’ve both had our hearing checked and although there is some hearing loss, there’s no need for hearing aids yet. So, I guess it boils down to not paying attention.

When did we stop paying attention to each other?  Life seems so busy. We are both involved with our pursuits of writing and playing the piano each day. We have errands to run, food to purchase, books to take to the library, and helping our daughters with their lives when they need it.

Here in our house, we sort of bump and grind (as we call it) way too much. The knowing smiles we used to pass to each other are gone. It’s hard to be patient with someone when you feel you aren’t being heard. I think that is the problem.

As we age, we need to be more patient. We need to care more, be kinder to our partner. Life throws us enough curves. We don’t need to create more, especially between us. The Webster definition of the word patience: “bearing the provocation, annoyance, misfortune, pain, etc. without complaint, loss of temper, or irritation.” That seems to fit our situation.

I must try harder and after I read this to him, I know he will try harder, too.

p.s. Robert loved this piece, and we really do talk abut these things in our household. The essay did give us a point from which to start.

© 2022 Suzy Beal

Writer and budding poet Suzy Beal spent twenty-five years helping seniors put their stories to paper and this year just finished her own memoir. Suzy’s work has appeared on truestorieswelltold.com, including a serialized portion of her travel memoir. She writes personal essays and is currently studying poetry.  Her work has appeared on Story Circle Network, 101words, Central Oregon Writer’s Guild, and recently an essay in  Placed: An Encyclopedia of Central Oregon. She lives and writes from Bend, Oregon.

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The Weird Girl 

By Patricia LaPointe

Up until the age of twelve, I lived in the city. Twelve-year-old city girls still wore ponytails, played indoor and outdoor games, and dressed in pedal pushers and t-shirts. 

Before I was to enter the seventh grade, Mom decided we should move to the suburbs. Seventh grade in the city was still part of elementary school. Seventh grade was separate from elementary school in the suburbs and called Junior High. I thought, “so what’s in a name?” It was still seventh grade. 

I soon discovered how vastly different plain old seventh grade was from Junior High. I entered the classroom and felt like I was in a foreign country. The girls had the most popular hairdo of the time: a short bob called a “bubble cut.” Our uniform was a pleated skirt, white blouse, and a bolero vest. All the girls had their skirts shortened to fall at their knees. Mom didn’t know how to hem, so my skirt fell inches above my ankle. The girls had these tiny, perky, budding breasts, perfect for wearing a bolero vest. My breasts had already blossomed to a 36 B. The bolero barely covered them. I was like “fresh meat” and a source of amusement for the well-established cliques. 

“Look at her skirt. I have nightgowns shorter than that.” 

“Bangs? Who wears bangs? And a ponytail? I’d never be caught dead wearing that.” 

“Did you see her eyebrows? They go straight across her forehead.” 

And they enlisted help from their “boyfriends” in their bullying. 

“She’s wearing a bra. Go snap it.” And I’d hear the boys’ victorious proclamations just as they were about to snap my bra: “Over the shoulder boulder-holder attack!” 

So, I sat for months listening to these words, whispers, and chuckling when I passed them. 

Mom was no help. She said these girls were “growing up too fast,” wearing short skirts and adult hairdos. She said they were so silly, giggling all the time. “I don’t want to hear you giggling or see you chasing boys.” 

My response to these situations was to study and learn. I became an “A” student. 

I found that being a good student had both positive and negative effects. I became the “teacher’s pet,” which only increased the bullying, especially when she would have me “watch” the class when she was out of the room. 

“Ooh, you’re in charge. You gonna tell her about this?” as they shot spitballs across the room. 

“How about this?” as they ran up the aisles, tagging each other. 

No, I didn’t tell about any of this. Nor did I tell when a boy, prompted by the “in” girls, stomped on my foot with his heavy boot. I told the teacher there were no problems when she was out of the room. I will never forget the smug faces of my classmates. 

This experience hurt my ability to form friendships with other women. I am very cautious, perhaps overly so, when meeting them. The fear of encountering similar behavior with women I meet makes it challenging to form a trusting relationship. The result is often my keeping them at arm’s length. I wonder how many opportunities for real friendships I’ve missed. 

P.S. There was a benefit: Learning what I expect from a friendship, as well as what I’m willing to offer, not only assists in those relationships but also tells me more about who I am. And who doesn’t need that? 

©  2022 Patricia LaPointe

Pat LaPointe, creator of Share Your Voice, an online interactive community for all women. She is editor of the anthology; The Woman I’ve Become: 37 Women Share Their Journeys from Toxic Relationships to Self-Empowerment. In addition, she has conducted writing workshops for women — both online and onsite. Pat’s essays and short stories have been published widely in anthologies, literary journals and on Medium.com @patromitolapointe. Currently, Pat is completing her first novel, forthcoming in 2023.

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Hush Grandma!

By Roberta (Bobbie) Johnson

My grandfather, a prankster, was a kind and loving man, good-natured and playful.  In my mother’s memoirs of her childhood, most all her memories are of him. Very little mention is made of Grandma.   She was strong, hardworking, and the backbone of the family. But like many women in her day, stayed in the background.  It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how much of an influence she had on me and how grateful I am for what she instilled in me.

“Grandma and me at Bluff View”

Here it is, retirement – my golden years.  And for the first time in my life, every day is my own.  No parent telling me what to do and when to do it.  No teacher expecting me to be at my desk and do my homework. No child demanding my time and attention.  No employer requiring my presence on the job.  I can get up when I want to get up and go to bed when I am tired, be it 8 o’clock in the evening or 3 o’clock in the morning.

If I want to sit at the computer and play games all day, I can sit at the computer and play games.  If I want to spend the day reading that book, I can do just that.  If I want to clean my house, I….well, I may get to it, or maybe not.  With few exceptions, I can spend each day doing exactly what I want to do.  So, what’s the problem? The problem is my Grandma Swiggum.

Grandma may have worked outside the home long before I can remember.  I think she may have worked at the paper factory in Eau Claire. Or the powder plant in Sauk County. But in my memory, she was always a homemaker.  And she managed to make that a full-time job, keeping a small home and cooking for Grandpa.  When she wasn’t cooking or cleaning, she was sewing.  We still have some of the quilts she made, though they are falling apart from use.  She was known for her cute clothespin bags that looked like a little dress.  She was always getting requests for them and always answered the requests.  I still have the pattern she used, made from a brown paper bag.  She made so many, she probably tore the original to pieces.  She gave me the last bag she was making that was unfinished.  After her death, I finished the bag and gave it to a sister I knew would appreciate it the most.  I already had one of my own.

Grandma playing solitaire

The only leisure activity I remember her engaging in was playing cards.  Playing solitaire, it was how she started and ended her days. Years ago, solitaire was played with real cards, not on a computer.  I lived with Grandpa and Grandma for a while when I was in seventh grade. The sound of cards being shuffled and laid down on the table was what I woke to most mornings and fell asleep to each evening.  Except for a few games of solitaire, Grandma managed to keep herself constantly busy with the daily chores of homemaking.  And she instilled in me the need to remain busy and productive.

That dear old lady who passed over 50 years ago still talks to me today.  She still tells me things like “anything worth doing is worth doing well.”  Or I you are not being productive; you are wasting your time.  Not her words, but the point she makes.

If I’m doing yard work, she’s telling me I should be cleaning the house.  If I’m cleaning the house, she reminds me the laundry is piling up.   If I sit down to watch TV, she suggests I could be clipping coupons or paying bills while I’m watching.  I have so many projects going at the same time; I almost never get any completed.  Every time I start working in one direction, I feel her tugging at me to be doing something else. 

But I am so grateful for my grandma and the things she instilled in me.  And I am proud that in many ways, I turned out much like I remember her.  She was hardworking, loving and giving and that is what I continue to strive to be.   But sometimes I just want to say, “Please Grandma, just be still and let me just waste the day away.”

© 2022 Roberta Johnson

Roberta (better known as Bobbie) Johnson had a difficult childhood lasting through her teens. Each month, she would take some of her lunch money, buy a True Story magazine and devour every story. While not the best reading material for a teenager, it gave her comfort knowing her experiences were not unique and life would get better. Through her working years, she discovered she had a bit of a knack for writing. Now Bobbie writes her own true stories. Not about the pain, but about the people in her life who gave her cherished memories. Memories to remind her that through it all, life was and still is good. 

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Book Review: Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us

By Sarah White

Who would believe that a book about grammar could be fun, delightful, and thought-provoking? Lawrence Weinstein’s Grammar for a Full Life is all that. Weinstein doesn’t just want to us straight about a number of English’s famously tricky grammatical points. He shows us how our writing reflects how we live, and how it can reveal ways to live better.

“A grammar book for enhancing human spirit? As any skeptic worth his salt would say, give me a break,” Weinstein, a professor and cofounder of Harvard University Writing Center, writes in his Introduction. And yet, he has truly delivered what he set out to achieve.

The book is organized into seven sections, or themes:

  • Grammar to Take Life in Hand
  • Grammar for Creative Passivity
  • Grammar for Belonging
  • Grammar for Freedom
  • Grammar for Morale
  • Grammar for Mindfulness
  • Grammar for The End

Not the usual organization by rules of usage or principles of composition!

Let me share a few examples of the meat you’ll find in this hearty stew.

In celebration of cross-outs, the signal of the drafting phase that helps nascent ideas mature, Weinstein quotes Kurt Vonnegut: “We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

Weinstein argues for the passive voice—something I’ve never seen a writing instructor attempt before—by pointing out the passive nature of receiving inspiration. Phrases like “I was inspired to” or “I took my lead from” abound. He mentions Michelangelo finding forms within stone slabs, and Rodin’s “The work of art is already in the marble. I just chop off the material that isn’t needed.”

In his section on Grammar for Belonging, Weinstein makes surprising connections. On voice: “In your writing, be that person who you are in the flesh.” In celebration of ellipses, “The ellipses shows us that, to some degree at least, communal bonds exist already, since certain facts pertaining to the speaker and/or listener ‘go without saying’ between them.” The semicolon and its role in cumulative sentences gets a tip of the hat for its ability to give a pleasant little feeling of expectancy—there is more to come; something will be expanded, exemplified, or made clear.

Weinstein welcomes the acceptance of “they” for the third person singular and the use of contractions even in formal writing.

In Grammar for Freedom, Weinstein takes on E-Prime, one of my favorite devices to clarify and strengthen the thinking behind our words. He calls it out for false equivalency: “All forms of the verb to be—such as am, is, are, was, were, has been, and will be—function like an equal sign,” he writes. And yet, we are rarely in a position of such authority that we can claim one thing equals another. “…’You are cowardly’—built around the verb are, a form of to be—is highly problematic. It is too simple, and it lacks respect for it’s subject’s variability; that fellow human being is unlikely either just to be a coward or to be one always.”

Grammar for Morale brings a celebration of “But”, that little fulcrum of a word that allows a sentence to reverse itself. Consider carefully the sequence, Weinstein advises: “Whatever goes last usually receives emphasis (called by grammarians end-focus).” Consider the difference in impact between “We fight, but the enemy defeats us” and “The enemy defeats us, but we fight on.” (this is the self-edit I make the most frequently.)

He praises the rhetorical devices that give sentences the power of poetry—sentence length and repetition, for example. “At its aesthetic best, a sentence’s grammar in some way mimics the content of what is being said.”

And finally, in Grammar for Mindfulness, Weinstein counsels us to avoid hype and fearfulness by restraining our use of exclamation marks, superlatives, italics, and other intensifiers. “….I’m likelier to buy a claim if the speaker making it doesn’t shriek at me and try to overwhelm me, effectively inserting a barrier of noise between me and…things of note.”

A favorite nugget of mine, for its mindfulness, is Weinstein’s distaste for possessive pronouns. “When we don’t take care, the possessive mindset–my, your, his, and so forth—casts a thick, misleading veil over all things.” He finds that when he replaces a possessive with a descriptive, he finds that he feels “a bit less encumbered, and a wee bit less invested in the concept—property—that associates myself with certain objects but blinds me both to them (in their truest nature) and to marvels on all sides.” Grammar for mindfulness leads us away from excited states of mind, the fiction of possession, and false certainty, Weinstein observes.

Pleasant stories from Weinstein’s life and teaching interleave all these gems. In these 200 pages plus comprehensive sources and endnotes, I felt like I was on a delightful walk through what I thought was familiar territory, made new by the wit and observations of my guide.

I’ve saved my highest praise for last. I had borrowed the book from the library—before I even finished it, I purchased a copy. This is a keeper for my writer’s bookshelf.

© 2022 Sarah White

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