Friday, December 28, 2012

Pandora's Box

I use Pandora Radio’s program while working at my computer. Having music while I work is wonderful. And my program is diverse. My “radio stations” range from: Anonymous Four, Cantus, Santana, Josh Groban, Umphries McGee, Deva Premal, Antonio Carolos Jobim, Michael Buble, Adele, Joe Bonamassa, James Taylor, Grateful Dead, Mary Youngblood, Seals and Crofts, Paul Simon, Loreena McKennitt and music that resembles any and all of the above. And I have them scrambled so I’m liable to hear a religious chant by Cantus followed by Santana (my favorite). Music truly is magical.

Pandora, an interesting choice of name for this program. In the original story, Pandora opens a forbidden box and lets loose wild and evil spirits. There is no evil in any of the music I’ve ever heard—even those “bad” boys who try so hard to be shocking. I rarely understood what they were saying and just enjoyed the music. When watching artists perform it is evident to me they are visiting some wonderful place of inspiration and beauty. Those that make it deserve to, for they’ve invested hours of time and passion to their craft.

I love to watch fans at performances. Their singing along, swaying their bodies, waving their hands, all their expressions of joy and admiration move me. They too are adding their energy to the universe, the other half of the equation.

My friend Dennis plays the ukulele. He was first exposed to it when he lived in Hawaii. And he understands the dynamics of performing live for an audience. Singing in the shower is one thing. Singing on a stage is a whole other dynamic. And making music with others is joyful and deeply satisfying. My friend Carter decided he wanted to play a musical instrument other than the harmonica (at which he is very good). So he bought a bass fiddle. Why not! I introduced him to Dennis and they now perform together.

Years ago, I had a friend who had received an unusual wedding gift. (Her husband was a church organist). Someone sent them a harpsichord kit. They came home from their honeymoon and put the thing together. The problem was that my friend played the flute, so she asked me to play the harpsichord. Another friend who played cello joined us and we met weekly to practice. Margaret (the flutist) played the violin part. The cello and I joined in and we had a wonderful time struggling our way through Mozart, Hayden, and Beethoven. We always finished our playing time together doing Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song” for we did it rather well. Otherwise, we feared we’d all give up.

I also spent about 20 years singing in a large chorale (about 150 voices). We performed with the symphony orchestra, were on TV, and gave concerts throughout the year. I remember once during a concert I had the feeling we were all connected to one another in a subtle network and the director had us all like fish caught on his hook. As he moved his arms, we all responded. Magical moments and all great fun, but it was the rehearsals I looked forward to. Making music with all those people kept me high for an entire week!

I’m impressed with all that is required to become proficient. Not as easy as it looks. The Beatles spent years playing in bars to noisy drunken crowds before they made it. The idea of overnight sensation is a myth. (Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours.) I appreciate them all—professional or amateur. For all of you who are making music, I say thanks. I think the universe is better off as a result. Maybe if we required all the politicians to sing their policies (even if off-key) there’d be more harmony in the world.

I remind myself of that when I’m writing. There are good days and bad. Paragraphs that give me goose pimples and others that are tossed into the recycler. But each moment that I sit here and work is of value. When I open my Pandora box, I get to listen to music written and performed by masters. Magic.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Post 52: One Year

When I began writing this blog, I promised myself I would post every Friday for a year. Well, it is now a year. I did it! Writing this blog has been a source of joy for me and the responses I’ve gotten have truly warmed my heart. (I apologize for the difficulty trying to post a comment. Most people send me an email: .) So Post #52 will be a reprise of my first post. Here it is:

I’ve been writing a private family blog for a while. My family likes it. But I’ve decided to come out of the closet and go public. Most of you know me and for those who don’t: I’m a mother, a grandmother, and a great grandmother. I’ve been a daughter, student, wife, homemaker, teacher, visiting professor, seminar leader, educational therapist, course designer, consultant, coach, and a facilitator, but always I’ve been a writer.

You’re my guinea pigs. I hope you like this and will comment and let me know what you are thinking. The writing will not be done in a chronological order as I will be pulling things out of my past. Some of these items go back a long way, as do I. My life spans many generations and the writings will reflect that. It’s a bit like the quilts my grandma Montgomery made.  Her bedroom and dining room were filled with piles of colorful fabrics all cut out in small pieces.  It was like a country garden with no obvious plan of design. Rarely did she buy any fabric, for her family and friends kept her supplied.  There was a piece from Aunt Nita’s last sewing, and Aunt Nelda’s apron scraps were there.  My mother was always looking through the pile of remnants at Samuelson’s Dry Goods Store for a pretty piece for “mama.”  A quarter of a yard was all it took to guarantee a good representation in grandma’s latest artistic endeavor.

My writing is like grandma’s quilt making.  My mind is a veritable garden of ideas, all colorfully stacked all over the place, waiting to be cut into an appropriate shape.  And there are scraps from friends and family, from books read, movies seen, and experiences. Alone the scraps won’t mean much, however, when sewed together, a pattern may be revealed. Just like life.

You may share these. I plan to put up a new post once a week. If you want to be taken from the mailing list, please let me know. (No one has made that request as yet.)

So here’s a sample: My sister had asthma when we were growing up, and as sorry as I felt for her, and as glad as I was that I didn’t have it, I sometimes longed to be ill.  My illness was very rare, not disfiguring, painful, nor fatal.  It was mysterious and I lay bravely on my bed, covered with silk comforters. The doctors stood nearby, consoling my parents. “There, there,” they said, “she’s nearing the crisis point now.”

My mother wept softly and my father clenched his jaw to contain himself.  My sister regretted all the things she’d done to anger and hurt me. 

My temperature began to rise, the room hushed, and all waited expectantly as I went through the crisis.

I always recovered and the only evidence of my brave adventure was that I was left with big boobs and long eyelashes.

Day dreams anyone?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Being A Girl

My family had moved (again) and I was the new girl in a new school in a new town. I was twelve years old, skinny, with braids tied with gingham ribbons, entering the seventh grade in the Junior High School. And I was shy! Everyone was a stranger. I now had to change rooms and have several teachers. Would I ever be able to find my way around the building, make friends? I felt overwhelmed and lost.

And then my Social Studies teacher, Miss Jones, came to my rescue. One afternoon, in my second week at school, she took me by the hand and marched me down the hall to a room with a hand-labeled sign: “Speech.”

“Put her to work,” she said, and left.

Saved my life.

I was assigned a reading in dramatic declamation, a scene from the play “Dark Victory.” That first year I made it to the County finales. My mother had bought a remnant of fabric and made me a new dress with a bolero. I remember standing on a stage that felt as if it were 50 feet above the audience. Mother had bought new gingham ribbons for my braids. (The ribbon was about 4 inches wide, brightly colored.) One of the braids had slipped to the front of my body, and I was suddenly concerned about finding a way to toss it back. I never did, and the ribbon hung like a 50-pound weight against my chest.  I still managed to get a third place for my efforts.

By the time I was in the ninth grade, I had added oratory and was tapped for debate. Quite an honor, really, as I was the only girl chosen. The debate team met in the high school, which housed grades 10-12. Every afternoon, I made the mile-long hike up to the high school for practice. I was on the B team and I loved it. Being so young and a girl, I was treated a bit like a little sister, coddled and protected. Of course, the boys on the team got to tease me, but no one else could.

Chippewa Falls was a small town of about 13,000, and we were placed in the league with much larger towns. As a result, we were a washout in sports except for one glorious year when we won the state championship in basketball. The entire town turned out to celebrate—we even had a parade. However, we had a speech coach who was a terror. Grace Walsh. She trained/coached us relentlessly, always seeing our strengths and abilities. She was a marvelous mixture of love and strength. And her methods worked. We all had nicknames: Grace was “Bonnie da Boss,” Johnny Dahl was “Big John.” Jim McClellan, “Bad Mac,” and I was “Rudy da Rat.”

In my junior year, we were at the State finals and my team had just been given our assignment. We were to debate a team from a bigger college town. As we entered the room, I overheard one of our opponents speak. He sounded terrified. “Oh my God! It’s Chippewa Falls.” We won and were state champions.

I was then doing extemporaneous oratory. Each year, four to six national issues were chosen. I spent the months before the contests began, frantically studying the subjects, making notes on my 3x5 cards, practicing. I made it through County and went on to State. Another new dress, but sans the braids. There were finally six finalists, and I the only girl. I was to follow a boy named Jerry. I knew him. He was from our bitter rival, Eau Claire, a city of about 60,000. Jerry was a fiery orator, a dynamic speaker who pounded hard and had won first place the year before. I knew his bedroom was probably filled with the numerous medals and trophies he’d won over the years. I was terrified.

I drew a card with the subject I was to talk about and was given twenty minutes to prepare. By this time, my 3x5s were badly dog-eared, but I got them out and nervously prepared, seriously wishing that I hadn’t played so much, regretting I hadn’t worked harder to prepare. There was a tap at the door. “You’re on.”

I dropped my cards and followed the man into the room. Someone had lowered the shades against the afternoon sun and the light in the room was dim. The desks and chairs had been pushed to the rear of the room to create a stage-like space. I looked about to orient myself and saw about ten men seated in the center of the room, surrounding my dear coach Grace Walsh. She smiled at me and nodded. A man spoke, “You’ll have twenty minutes. I’ll warn you at ten and five. At one minute, I’ll ring a bell and you may finish your sentence. You may begin.”

I have no recollection of what I said. I do recall one vivid moment when it felt as if I held the room in the palm of my hand, a feeling of such power that it startled me.

At the end, the contestants were all called back into the room and the awards were handed out.  There was a third place winner. And then the judge approached me. As he handed me the second-place silver medal, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You were really the best, but you are a girl.” Jerry was given first place.

I never told anyone what the judge said and never complained. It never occurred to me it could be otherwise. After all, I had been playing in an arena where historically men had always had the upper hand. But times change and one of the most exciting issues has been that of women. We’ve come a long way and there’s still way to go.

War (WWII) was declared the following year and Jerry joined the Merchant Marine. His ship, an oil tanker, went down in the North Sea. All hands lost. I thought of his parents sitting in his bedroom in their grief. Now all they had were his medals and awards. Small comfort.

Friday, December 7, 2012


In the realm of clichés, I am the queen. I’m not a cliché snob. I like them. They trip lightly on the tongue, come easy as pie, and are as clear as a bell. When they were first printed or spoken, they were right on or they never would have become clichés. It’s their overuse that does them in. I don’t know the exact number, but when they hit it, they become hackneyed and are demoted from expressive language to cliché.

It’s really not fair, for they are so handy. They fit the bill, are the bee’s knees, hit the nail right on the head. Truth is they’re often right as rain, fit as a fiddle, and sometimes even cute as a button. I like the ones that are tough as nails, or that make people mad as wet hens. For describing individuals they can’t be beat. Women are thin as rails, mysterious as Mona Lisa, beautiful as Venus, as big as a minute, and sometimes cuddly kittens. Men are lucky for they get to be Greek gods, tough as nails, slick dudes, and sometimes drunk as skunks.

Parenting is a rich domain for cliché. There’s tough love, helicopter parents, empty nesters, gender-neuter parenting. Weather is wonderful for it can rain cats and dogs and the driveway become slick as a whistle. And writing is loaded with clichés, especially my stuff. I think they’re here to stay.