Saturday, December 17, 2011

Better living through facts

I've been gone a while. Lots of good things going on. I'm back because I have a problem. It's not a big problem, but I think it's a common one in this age.

I just read a post over at ("Remembering Ludwig van Beethoven"), and it stirred a dilemma in me.

Miller's post includes a note from Beethoven to his brothers. Beethoven's note raises great questions about life and artists. His loss of hearing, so deeply felt. Would he have been a different artist if he had never experienced that loss? Is it really "less easy for the artist than anyone else?"

These are the questions raised, but my dilemma is this: I'm distracted. The post begins by pointing to today as the anniversary of Beethoven's death. In my mind, I hear a audio recording ("Beethoven Lives Upstairs" maybe?) purchased after taking one of my kids to the symphony as a birthday present. We listened to it on the way home. Bells rang out, and the narrator intoned, "March 26th ..." We looked at each other in disbelief. March 26th, my child's birthday, and the widely reported date of Beethoven's death.

The intent of "Remembering Ludwig van Beethoven" is not to proclaim fact, and I know it. I want to think about the broader truth, but I am weak. I do a little checking. Today is likely the anniversary of Beethoven's baptism. Perhaps I should let it go. Perhaps I should contact the author privately, but there's no way to do that. I don't want to be snarky, but I don't want to see someone's words discredited because of a simple mistake.

Miller says in his post that some believe that in this "age of television and consumer distractions, another Beethoven will not develop." But we will know the facts!

(I keep thinking about this issue. If you'd like to read more of my thoughts on facts and truth, and about the birth of a different child, please check out For Victoria Crawford, an essay I wrote for

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On Football

My latest essay is now available at The Curator. Here's an excerpt:

We spend our autumn Sundays, each Thanksgiving, and the rare Monday, in the throws. We visit Ford Field; we stare at our televisions. Sixteen times every fall, we participate, identify, and scream — sometimes with joy, usually in pain. We are offsides; we are injured; we shake our heads and curse ourselves for wasting a perfectly good afternoon on this ridiculous team. Occasionally, we win, and we shake our heads just the same. We are being strung along. Stupid Lions.
Winter brings the playoffs, and we watch numbly, from afar. By the second round, we’re adopting a team. The Super Bowl is played. We don’t wonder when it will be our turn. We have no dreams for our future. It’s February, the mercifully shortest month, the worst month. Our hearts and road conditions unite: we are cold, iced over. We are sick of winter and done with football.
The rash among us disassociate and make vows: they will never watch another Lions game until that team proves their worth. These rash might get teased a little, about jumping off the bandwagon, but mostly, everyone nods.

How do Lions fans go from this to the unbridled optimism of August? Read the entire story here, at

Friday, August 5, 2011

New personal essay

My latest, After the Fourth, is available starting today at Curator magazine. An excerpt:
The days surrounding July 4th normally trumpet the ease of summer, but this year’s music is different. It was Tuesday, the fifth of July, when the horns gave way to the unrelenting beat of the future.
A careful listener would have heard the cues sooner. On Friday, my oldest went away with a buddy and his family. We packed my boy’s things and wrote down all the phone numbers. His dad and I spoke out of both sides of our mouths, reminding him to call if anything made him uncomfortable and assuring him that everything would be fine.
Thump, thump.
Saturday the wind and rain washed the rhythm away, but it returned on Sunday, pulsing as I came up the stairs and saw Connor in combat boots and camouflage...
Read the whole story here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Real produce, real answers

What do you do about the tiny black bugs in the organic broccoli? asked a foodpickle writer.

I know the answer, but I couldn't bring myself to post it there.

We had these same tiny black bugs in our homegrown cauliflower when I was a kid. I would spend minute after minute at the kitchen sink, plunging the white heads into cold water and inspecting each and every floret.

This sort of effort was fruitless, and my father would tell me so. Then he showed me his way. Like me, he plunged the cauliflower under the water. Unlike me, he left it there and went to the cupboard. He returned to the sink, an open tin in his hand. He shook the tin above the surface of the water, let the cauliflower soak for a time, and then pulled the whole head from the sink before draining the water, grinning.

So to the foodpickle person, I say this: pepper the broccoli. No one will ever know the difference.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Summer is Here!

Dear Bush Beans: 

You are a pain to harvest and process, but I love you. Especially drizzled in olive oil, simply seasoned, and grilled. 

All winter long I pine for this, the beginning of the summer harvest. Our local farmer's market had sweet corn and tomatoes and berries. My husband went with me for the first time, and he described me as practically vibrating.

Things are a little slower in our own garden, graciously housed and cared for by my in-laws. The pepper plants look a little short, the tomato plants seem to be coming up slow, but the beans promise a good yield. Hope your summer produces as well!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Where I've Been

Hiya blog readers. It has been a while. Summer has me in her grips, and she's not letting me go until I out-scarf the hot dog eating champion at Nathan's Famous.

I'll post from time to time this summer. In the meantime, I'd love it if you read my latest piece, a "short imagined monologue", as published at McSweeney's Internet Tendency:

- - - -
The situation was that my second child was going on four and still in diapers. People were starting to talk. I was already “that mom with the biter.” They called my firstborn “The Shark” around the St. Nicholas Daycare. His dental impressions were found on everyone, or so they claimed. I swear one of those kids was biting himself just to get an extra turn on the scooter, but whatever. Eventually they put my boy on the naughty list and kicked him out… hence the employment gap you’ve noted, and The Shark’s complete hatred of Santa Claus.  
Once nursery workers turn on you, you’re under constant surveillance. You pass them in the dairy aisle. They smile sweetly, avoiding eye contact, noting the mismatched socks and the odor of soy sauce as they select their fake butter. ...

Read the full piece here. Fifteen dogs and counting, Laura

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How to Be Cheap

Some people believe that cheapness is innate and unchangeable. They believe that in order to be cheap, Mom's birth plan had to assume your birth in the back of the Vega, Pops cutting through side streets, hunting for the lowest gas price. 

If you were not to the tightwad born, don't fret. They can believe what they want; I believe you can overcome a generous nature. Here are some tips on how to cultivate cheapness.

  • Convert a Christmas cookie jar into a bank. When the kids get rambunctious and ruin wrapping paper for re-use, fine them.
  • For Easter, cut jelly beans in half. Give some to the kids and save the rest for Halloween 'tricky treats'.
  • Homemade wrapping paper: use original store bag, scribble on it, and call it 'eco-friendly art packaging.' Feeling self-conscious? Say it was the kids' idea.
  • Buy a 99-cent card for Mother's Day. Insist that she give it back so it can be reused the next year. If you have a mom and a step-mom and/or mother-in-law, make them share.
  • If leftover meat remains on the guest's plate, cut around the bites and store for your use later.
  • Once you buy the week's toilet paper, ration equal amounts for each person in your household. Extra Cheap Tip: make guests bring their own.
  • Dental floss: measure out a comfortable length and mark in two-inch increments. Use only one section per day. Rinse and save in toothbrush holder until entire length is used. 
On Vacation
  • Never book a motel. Only travel where you have family. Fall asleep while looking at old family movies; play "sound sleeper,"and they'll feel bad for you and let you spend the night. Raid the fridge on your way out in the morning before anyone else gets up -- free room and board!
  • Dress the children alike. Ask all clerks if they offer a 'multiples' discount.
Social Life
  • If your girlfriend is short, try to get her into the movie on a kid's "12 and under" ticket.
  • Invite a friend out to lunch and 'forget' your wallet. Keep friends away from each other, so you can do this more than once.
  • Make your kid use the same plastic bag and messed up piece of tinfoil for his school lunch all week. Explain to him that it's a 'Friendship Test': he doesn't need friends who would tease him about saving money. Extra Cheap Tip: make him reuse a napkin too. 
    Apply these and they will naturalize, like day lilies dug up from alongside the road and transplanted to your flower bed. Congratulations on your spreading cheapness!

    This is my third collaborative article, and it's always a good time. Thanks Jennifer B., Tina C., 
    Mary Ann D., Fred H., Gina L., Kamla L., Kathleen R., and Mike T. Want more? You can read about writing your own bio blurb, or surviving Michigan's rich tradition of high school graduation open houses.

    Friday, June 10, 2011

    Sci-Nonfi: RoboRoaches

    On an otherwise unremarkable day in May, I spent time with high school students and neuroscientists and their remote-controlled cockroaches.
    Two live RoboRoaches on a lab table

    My essay appears in The Curator today. An excerpt:
    The students finish the SpikerBoxes; the cockroach experience begins. A few Blaberus discoidalis cockroaches will have a limb surgically removed. The legs, the scientists explain, have neurons firing in them, even after they are amputated, and will remain alive for up to two days.
    Volunteers take on the roles of anesthesiologist and surgeon. Marzullo guides them through the procedure. The cockroaches are removed from their habitat and submerged in ice water. Using small, curved scissors, the leg is quickly and carefully cut and pinned to a SpikerBox. Students huddle around it, waiting to hear the spikes. It sounds like static. Gage and Marzullo then connect the box to an iPad, and students can see a visual representation of the sounds.
    They discuss possible responses of the leg to stimuli, and reveal what will be one of the student’s favorite experiments: How will a cockroach leg respond to the sound vibrations of hip-hop, specifically the song “Love the Way You Lie?”
    Read the entire story here.

    You can read The Oakland Press article, learn more about Backyard Brains, or prepare for the coming RoboRoach invasion.

    Thursday, June 9, 2011

    Fonetik Spelng

    One of my children has entered the age of phonetic spelling. It's an ongoing word obsession with this one: making lists, writing stories, spelling things out in refrigerator magnet...

    Can you guess the word?

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011

    Surprises in Concert

    I love concert surprises, when a band covers something unexpected or a special guest appears. I saw the Barenaked Ladies sing a bit of the theme from Titanic. I witnessed Eric Clapton invite Stevie Ray Vaughn onto the stage. I was entertained by the first and giddy at the second.

    Concerts hold other surprises too, sometimes even more memorable. I love to be blown away by the musicianship of the supporting players. Francine Reed comes to mind, singing on tour with Lyle Lovett. Oooo wee!

    I'm most likely to be awed by a percussionist. Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints tour opened with what felt like a percussion orchestra: unbelievable. Bernie Dresel playing with Brian Setzer? Jaw-dropping. Then there's this guy. When lit properly, he looks like a tambourine witch doctor. Behold, the mesmerizing Ray Cooper (with Elton John):

    Friday, June 3, 2011

    Pomp and Circumstance and Meatballs

    June heralds a special period in my little town. No, not summer (that lasts for exactly 9 days in late July). Not road construction time (that's May-November). June marks the traditional beginning of open house season.

    Areas rendered in pink
    indicate communities
    that prefer
    Michigan Open House Customs
    Here's what you can expect if someone invites you to an open house:
    • A high school graduate who looks annoyed at being at his or her own party
    • A beautifully clean garage with tables full of food
    • Paint cans, weed whackers, bottles full of motor oil, and other junk crammed into a locked basement
    • Mystery relatives
    • Cocktail meatballs in chili sauce and grape jelly
    Six Open House Do's For Moms
    1) DO display embarrassing photos of your graduate. This serves a dual purpose. It's fun for you, and it will drive your kid out of the house sooner. 

    2) DO have an open bar. When someone passes out, you can fetch the permanent markers and keep the little ones busy with a round of "Tattoo Parlor."

    3) DO plan major renovations for May. Dealing with invitations, commencement, food, a surly teenager, and the looming specter of your emptying nest is not enough. 

    4) DO start the day with a nice mimosa.
    4a) Continue as directed by a physician.

    5) DO have a list of chores ready for each member of your family. If they dawdle, start mixing large quantities of Red Bull with injectable B12.

    6) DO rent a dumpster. Anything lying on the ground the next day gets thrown away. Hint: wake up "Tattoo Parlor" patrons before applying this rule.

    Six Tips for Grads
    7) DO NOT coordinate party dates with your friends. This will limit attendance and embarrassment.

    8) DO NOT forget to pick up your slightly delusional one legged grandmother. DO check her O2 tank to make sure she has enough to last the duration of the party, or until she hops back to the center.

    Ceiling mildew,
    dead moth,
    or your spirit,
    9) DO NOT crack jokes about the mildew in the bathroom being a fun inkblot test for Grandpa. Your mother has lost her sense of humor.

    10) DO NOT ask why you have to wash the floor when people are just going to walk on it anyway (see above).

    11) DO hide all cash, car keys, collectible train sets, and tools. Free food attracts all sorts of unsavory family members. This mature thinking will go a long way toward repairing the damage you've caused in points nine and ten.

    12) DO push food on everyone. You don't want to eat this stuff all summer.

    Savvy Advice for Open House Guests
    13) DO ask the graduate about future plans. Guffaw.

    14) DO let your preschooler have free reign over the dessert table. Yes, red velvet cake will stain, but hey, those aren't your drapes.

    15) No meal planned for the next day? DO show up late. Act surprised when they offer you leftovers, and marvel at the coincidence: your purse is full of Tupperware. 

    Congratulations, graduates. Enjoy your mostaccioli, and have a meatball for me.

    This is my second collaborative post. You can read the first, on writing your own biography blurb, by clicking here. Thanks to Jennifer B., Lisa B., Shawn B., Tina C., Pam C., Connie D., Kathleen R., Dean S., and Kimberly T.  for the clever conversation.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2011


    Obstacle Race, Dornoch Highland Gathering 2007. Photo by John Haslam.
    I watched a little girl mount the side of a shopping cart and ride, cheering like a rodeo cowgirl. Later, she clambered beneath the basket onto the frame. Eventually she uncurled, emerged, and hopped past the checkout, touching only the grey squares.

    Unencumbered by a shopping list, coupons, the plans of the day, she goes. She skips, and skips backwards. She pushes herself, discovering the novel while I act bound to the ordinary.

    I want to be a solid grown-up, but to achieve that, do I need to be a better kid? How might I see the day's challenges and revel in them?

    Monday, May 30, 2011

    Wordle of the Week

    You can make your own wordle here.

    Sunday, May 29, 2011

    Music and Writing

    Writing in a crowded place is tough. Words float to my table like soap bubbles, and like a schoolchild, I follow them. The way a conversation moves; the way a person phrases his ideas; these things transport me.

    Being transported is fun, but if I'm trying to meet a word count or a deadline, it's bad. I need a way to drown out the voices. I turn to my headphones, but I sometimes find more soap bubbles: lyrics. They fill up my senses like a night in the forest; the stain on my notebook says nothing to me; and the words just c[o]me out wrong. In order to enjoy writing in a café (as in #4 of my five favorite places to write), I turn to a trusty set of instrumentals.

    The playlist includes the album Miles of Styles by Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra and Shawn Lee, tracks from The John Scofield Band and Dave Brubeck, and this happy tune, 102% by The New Mastersounds:

    Are you easily distracted by conversations in a café or lyrics in a song? How do you deaden the sounds around you so you can better focus?

    This is the fourth entry regarding my five favorite places to write. If you'd like, you may check out the others: My house, empty; First thing in the morning; and Librarians rock.

    Saturday, May 28, 2011

    Librarians rock

    I've been working through my top 5 places to write, and we are now at number three, a conference room at my local library.

    When I'm trying to work something out, when I've got a lot of parts and pieces that need to be welded, there's nothing like a flat surface. A clean flat surface. An uncrusted-with-sugared-cereal flat surface.

    Beyond the giant tables, writing at the library is fantastic because librarians rock. They know how to research. For example, I worked on this essay about the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I wanted to include some technical details about the space, but couldn't find them. I went to the desk looking for help, but what I received was a complete and gracious takeover. The librarian foraged as I wrote, dragging another librarian into the process, eventually emerging triumphant. They found the perfect bit of information from solid, credible sources.

    Librarians are so much more than book-checker-outers. Test them. They seem to enjoy it.

    Friday, May 27, 2011

    First thing in the morning

    My dream morning grants me sleep until I awake on my own. Opening my eyes and grabbing my laptop without leaving my bed, I sit and write, uninterrupted. 

    There's something about that moment. Ideas stir, sharp and fresh. The details of the day have yet to burrow into my brain. I've made no foolish choices that I need to regret. I have no sleepiness I need to suppress. 

    Rare, this type of morning. Near fantasy. Reality finds me going to bed late and getting up with my family. They need socks and breakfast and homework papers signed, so I step away from my interior life and into the kitchen. Coffee it is. Order it is. We are packing lunches; we are preparing for the day; we are on schedule.

    Once I'm up and going, I find it hard to resettle into the easy place of ideas. I walk through the house and shut off the lights; shut off the TV. I return to my room, or maybe sit on the couch with my laptop and a blanket, and in the first of ironies, work myself back to a relaxed state. Sometimes I forget that this is my goal and I check email and social media sites. The distractions worm their way into my work, and now I'm fighting not only the caffeine and the household chores, but the desire to connect with people. This is the second irony: in order to connect with people as a writer, I have to limit my time connecting in easier ways.

    Some days I press. Other days I waste. So the day begins.

    This is my third post about my favorite places to write. The list came first, then a discussion of my house, empty.

    Thursday, May 26, 2011

    Well done blogs

    May marks a record month of blog writing for me. Social pressure from complete strangers is an amazing thing. Thank you for the encouragement, Michelle Rafter.

    It's also a record month of blog reading, and I've delighted in the people I've read so far. I plan to highlight some of my favorites over the summer. Three to get you started:

    Intralingo Lisa Carter is a Spanish to English literary, legal and commercial  translator. She writes as well. Fascinating work, compelling questions, great voice.

    Patient POV Laura Newman covers medical news in a way that's informative and personal. I especially appreciated her coverage and questions from the National Press Foundation’s Alzheimer’s Disease Issues 2011 Fellowship.

    A Summer of 1961 Diary Barbara McDowell Whitt shares her diary entries from high school. Interesting little slices of life from Iowa in the early sixties.

    Who have you enjoyed reading this month? Feel free to celebrate someone else's work in the comments.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011

    My house, empty

    I'm participating in WordCount Blogathon 2011 (you can see a list of all participants here). Yesterday those interested wrote in response to the theme, "What are your five favorite places to write?" I posted my list, but I'd like to take a little time over the next few days to discuss each place.

    I type at this very moment in a full house. Sponge Bob and Patrick loudly help Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. My little one plays a game that is too much for her. My bigger kids avoid their homework. All this promises that I will be interrupted; I will need to interrupt. I have a moment, but only a moment. I will need to care for my family.

    I love to care for my family, but trying to write at the same time doesn't work. I don't write well interrupted or interrupting. I don't care for my family well when I'm uninterruptible.

    When empty, my house encases quiet itself. It does not interrupt. It has things that need to be done, but its voice is easily suppressed by a cup of coffee, the 'do not disturb' button on my phone, and dim lighting.

    I've discovered that I am capable of ignoring the phone, happiest when the TV is off, love to soak in the quiet and comfort of my own space. My house, empty: it fills me.

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    Five Favorite Places to Write

    For the Blogathon 2011, we were encouraged to share our top 5 places to write today. Here are mine, just under the wire:

    1) My house, empty.
    2) My bedroom, in the morning, with the door shut, before I get my coffee.
    3) A conference room at my local library.
    4) A coffee shop, headphones in, listening to my favorite instrumental playlist.
    5) Late night in the big chair.

    More on these later.

    Monday, May 23, 2011

    Flash Collaboration: Tips on Writing Your Bio Blurb

    Today I realized two things. 1) I miss collaborative art. 2) I hate writing my own biography blurb. So I sought input, and this is the result. Thanks to Tina C., Carol R., Dean S., Wendy S., Karen R., Betty M., Matt F., and Rene S. 

    Writing Your Own Biography Blurb

    You are a rock star soccer mom and kitchen ninja, and it's time to let the world know it. It's time to write your biography blurb.

    Not just any biography blurb: the greatest bio in the history of the internet, the one that's going to revolutionize the art and practice of blurbing, the one that's going to catapult you into the rare air of internet darling and employed author. After all, you are a housewife with three kids living outside the most insulted city in the country, faking a basic understanding of SEO and nursing an anemic freelance career. The only thing holding you back is a quality bio.

    Don't be shy. Tell your story, the way you'd tell it at some cocktail party you imagine going to in some city you've never visited with people who are really just on their way somewhere else.

    This list is going to evolve your personal landscape, and is sure to drive traffic straight to your blog. It will give off a scent, and people who want to give you loads of money will turn Google into their personal bloodhound, clicking your link like hunters after a raccoon. That's right, these tips are going to make you reek like a wild animal, and you will eventually be treed ... in a tree full of PROFIT. You'll be shot ... shot full of RESPECT.

    Keep reading for the kind of tips you can't find on any other blogs written by writers who give tips.

    Blurb Do List

    • DO make awkward self-references that most people will not find funny. For example, "Laura Tokie hates to write about herself in the third person."
    • DO reference moments when you were inspired by bad teachers/writers to not be like them after some serious therapy. In fact, mention therapy whenever possible.
    • DO remember that author bios work best if they bear a vague resemblance to the contestant intros on The Dating Game. "In her spare time, [author/contestant #3] enjoys spear fishing and topiary . . ."
    • DO mention your pets. Everyone wants to know about them. 
    • DO include details concerning your multiple failed attempts at trying to develop and market a successful ice show entitled "Cops on Ice."
    • DO mention all sorts of hard accomplishments achieved and your daily tasks in such a way as to make everyone recognize they could never be you...and shouldn't even try... e.g. "[Author] loves running 30 miles daily and has run the Boston Marathon 3 times. In her spare time she sews mosquito nets for children in third world countries."

    Blurb Don'ts

    • DON'T forget to mention the 1. substance abuse 2. multiple personalities 3. embezzlement from the girl scouts 4. an Uncle Earl...who ever that is. 5. any mob affiliation 6. "accidental" killings and dismemberment. You've already mentioned your pet, so that will soften any implied hard edges. 
    • DON'T publish your first draft. Do the work. Craft, polish, correct grammatical errors, lie. 
    • DON'T hesitate to claim you love sunsets, need your morning coffee, and are working on a novel. Some people fear cliché, but I believe potential readers enjoy connecting to your common side.

    A Final Word

    Be sure and wrap up your blurb. Find a way to end it. Land the plane. Circle the runway, put the landing gear down, bring her home.

    Now go back to your biography and add 'pilot', my little raccoon. You've earned your wings.

    Laura Tokie is a housewife, soccer mom, and kitchen ninja. She lives 45 minutes outside Detroit Rock City with her family and Dano, a yellow lab. She loves coffee and sunsets, and is working on a novel. In her spare time, Laura mocks herself and saves her pennies for her children's future therapy bills. She thinks "Cops on Ice" would be fun for the whole family, and often pictures Kurt Browning throwing a salchow in the space between the repeated phrase,"Bad boys, bad boys". Follow Laura on Twitter

    Sunday, May 22, 2011

    Haiku Sunday

    Intoxicating Wind

    Flower vessels form,
    drink spring's elixir, then burst,
    decanting their scent.

    Saturday, May 21, 2011

    Barely home today, but here's one thing I saw: a girl skipping while trying to play soccer.

    Friday, May 20, 2011

    Writerly Habits

    Today, Advice To Writers posted a Garrison Keillor quote:
    When writing loses touch with the beautiful surface of the world, it loses its way. You always want to be in touch with how things look and what people say and what they call their dogs.

    This reminded me of a favorite exercise and a favorite practice for writers. 

    A favorite exercise

    This is from Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. The books gives sensible advice and exercises, useful to both fiction and nonfiction writers. One exercise asks you to contact five acquaintances and get the names of their dogs. He then asks you to list the names in the order that sounds best.

    A favorite practice

    I cannot remember the source of the practice, but someone suggested that every day, a writer should write down five things he or she sees. I've fallen out of this habit, but perhaps tonight I'll fall back in again.

    What are your habits or practices that keep your work "in touch with the beautiful surface of the world?"

    The Roy Peter Clark book is on my top 5 list of writing books. You can read the rest of my picks here.

    Thursday, May 19, 2011

    Chayefsky's Notes on Network

    This is a happy day for me, as I spent some time with an interactive feature, The Notes Behind Network.

    The best part is the UBS programming grid. It lists shows like Celebrity Canasta, Young Shysters, Pedro and the Putz ... I can only imagine the treatments Chayefsky kept in his head.

    His titles would make great prompts, I think.

    Beyond the grid, the feature includes a list of Chayefsky's dream cast (Paul Newman!), an apologetic letter to "Walter", and a hand-written letter to himself bemoaning the show's lack of point of view.

    I've employed this technique, writing a letter to yourself about what you're writing. I think it's a great tool. I like it even better now.

    If you are unfamiliar with Network, and you are not easily offended by language and nudity, you should watch it. Now. You can read about my relationship to the movie in this piece I wrote for Curator Magazine.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011

    Worth checking out

    Here are a few sites worth exploring today:

    At Comment Magazine (thanks to my editors at Curator Magazine for sharing this), Carey Wallace links spiritual and creative discipline.

    This is what undergirds my discipline in my best moments: the dazzling beauty and variety of the things God wants to speak into this world, the honour of being able to repeat some of them in my own voice, and the shortness of my life relative to the size of the task. It requires discipline to stay tuned to these truths in the crush and noise of each day, but when the division between creative and spiritual disciplines is removed, the reward becomes not just another page written, or another lonely hour stared down, but a meeting with God himself, who restores us even as He leads us on.

    At Curator Magazine, consider guerilla art and the idea of wonder in "The Serendipity Revival" from the perspective of Maureen Lovett. Earlier in the week I was admiring pictures of the handiwork of guerilla knitters (a tree wearing a sweater!).

    Finally, I've enjoyed many of the blogs participating in Blogathon 2011.

    Time for me to write. Happy surfing.

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011

    Grown Up Cooking: Chuck Roast

    A friend of mine once described those days where you take care of all of the little things as a 'grown-up day'. I think I understand: setting up my slow cooker in the morning makes me feel grown up. After a full day of good but atypical work, it's great to come home and know that dinner's almost ready.

    I posted this recipe back in March 2010 at my very neglected food blog (you can visit it by clicking here). I made a modified version this morning, sans vegetables and chicken stock. The resulting jus was a little bland, but a few spices, a little roux ... everyone was happy and fed.

    Slow Cooker Boneless Chuck Roast and Sauce
    Makes 8+ servings

    5-6 lbs. chuck roast (I used two smaller roasts for a total of 5 lbs.)

    1 tablespoon kosher salt
    2 dashes cayenne
    2 dashes paprika
    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    1 1/2 teaspoons dried ground thyme

    1 tablespoon canola oil
    2 onions, coarsely chopped
    6 carrots, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
    8 oz. sliced mini-bella mushrooms
    1/3 cup chopped celery (fresh or frozen)
    1 cup dry red wine
    1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
    1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
    4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
    1 beef bouillon cube
    2 bay leaves

    In a small bowl, mix kosher salt, cayenne, paprika, pepper and thyme.

    Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Pat the top of the roast dry with a paper towel and  sprinkle with a teaspoon of the salt mixture. When oil is hot, place roast seasoned side down in pan. Sprinkle an additional teaspoon salt mix on top. Brown roast on both sides, 5-10 minutes, and place into slow cooker. If working with two smaller roasts, brown each one individually.

    Reduce heat to medium. Add onions and cook about 4 minutes. Add carrots and cook about 4 more minutes. Add mushrooms and cook an additional 3-4 minutes or until the vegetables begin to brown. Add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen and browned bits. Add the Worchestershire sauce, tomato paste, chicken stock and bouillon cube and bring to boil. Add bay leaves.

    Pour liquid and vegetables into the slow cooker over the browned roasts. Cover and cook on low for 8-9 hours or on high 6-7 hours.

    When meat is fork tender, remove from liquid and place in serving dish (a large casserole would work well here). Remove as much fat from the liquid as you can (I used a gravy separator) and purée the vegetables in batches. Transfer to a gravy boat if you're feeling fancy, or just put in a bowl with a ladle. Serve.

    A few thoughts:
    • Set aside the extra 15-20 minutes and brown the meat and vegetables. It will add depth to your finished dish. If you don't want to take my word for it, believe my mom. She's not a foodie. She's a very practical woman who doesn't like to fuss over a dish, and I can remember her standing over the frying pan awkwardly turning big ol' roasts - because she could taste the difference. 
    • If you don't do wine, try a 'dry' juice like cranberry or pomegranate.
    • This recipe would suit a 6 quart slow cooker. Mine is 5 quarts, and there was about 3 cups of liquid that just wouldn't fit - but still plenty of delicious sauce. 
    • Served with baked potatoes and salad. We're planning on leftovers with noodles.

    Monday, May 16, 2011

    Foster on Leadership Part 2

    Today is my last day teaching on leadership. As a part of the curriculum, I included a few interviews with leaders, in the hopes of giving kids real-life insight. The following is the second half of my interview with Jerry Foster, Vice-President of Research and Development at Plex Systems. You can read part 1, covering contemporary challenges and important traits for leaders, here.

    How do you go about making tough decisions?

    JF: Lots of thought and prayer. Get lots of advice, including from people who don't think like you. If you are a guy, it is critical that you get a woman's perspective on a situation. They have insight into how people will react that I guarantee you never thought of.

    Never make a tough decision when you are tired or angry. Rarely make big decisions through email. If you are making a decision you know will be unpopular (and once in a while this is necessary), explain your reasons in great detail. I have found that even if people don't agree with me, if I can get them to understand where I am coming from, they are much more apt to follow. If you are unable to articulate the reasoning behind your decision, perhaps you need to rethink your decision.

    Give your followers a chance to air their thoughts, suggestions, and concerns. Nothing will frustrate people more than being forced to do something without any avenue to express their emotions. It doesn't mean you have to act on all that emotion, but it sure helps keep the communication lines open.

    Finally, this is something I have learned over the years. If I have a really tough decision to make, sometimes *I* don't make it. I get all the relevant people in a room and I say, "Here is what is going on. Here are our choices - A, B, and C. Here is how I perceive them, but I'm stuck. We need to come to a decision. What should we do?" This can be an amazing process. It can push significant growth in the trust and camaraderie of your team. But most importantly, when everyone comes to a consensus, you have total buy-in and cooperation with the direction that has been decided.

    How can someone prepare to lead?

    JF: Two things come to mind.

    1. Find someone you know that seems to be a leader. It can be anyone - a teacher, a coach, a pastor. Watch them closely. See how they react in tough situations, or better, with difficult people. If possible, get to know them on a personal level and ask them to mentor you. Work with them, observe, and absorb.

    It is very important to note here, that just because someone has a title of authority, does not mean they are a leader. And likewise, some great leaders don't have official titles. But people are drawn to them and follow them naturally anyway.

    2. Experiment leading very small groups with short timelines. For instance, organize and lead a small study group for a test. Or volunteer to plan a particular event. These situations will help you learn how to lead in a low-risk situation. You get great experience, and you learn what things you need to work on, as you take on bigger leadership roles. Leading people is often an art, not a science, and often the only way to prepare is to learn on the job and get the experience under your belt.

    Please share anything else you think might be valuable for students to hear.

    JF: There are varying degrees of leadership. At some point in your life you will have to lead someone, even if you are just leading your kids (which is probably one of the more crucial leadership roles that has ever existed!). But, not everyone is cut out to lead a huge team, or be the CEO of a company, or be a manager. That's ok! I'm not saying don't stretch yourself, or try new things. I'm simply saying, your heart will tell you where you fall on the leadership spectrum, and you can work very confidently from that position.

    Sunday, May 15, 2011

    Foster on Leadership Part 1

    Last week, I ran an interview with Asa Lane on what it takes to be a successful musician. If you missed it, you can read the full article here. This week for my students, I've interviewed Jerry Foster (JF) on the subject of leadership. I'll publish part one today, part two tomorrow.

    What are the challenges of leadership today?

    JF: There is so much information coming from so many different sources, it is often very difficult to wade through all the garbage and figure out what are the real critical pieces of information that need to be the basis of your decisions.

    It is easy to lose sight of the people you lead, as you lead. It seems counter-intuitive, but when there are pressures coming from your boss (every leader has a boss!), you can be pressured to be more attentive to the bottom line, whatever that may be for your leadership position, rather than showing nurture and care for those you are leading.

    Finally, it is easy to become distracted from the main goal. Things like email, voicemail, your phone, the internet, games, etc., pull us in different directions. But sometimes even more so, there are lots of little goals that each seem good in their own right, but keep you from focusing on the big one, the main goal, the number one thing you need to get done. Stay focused.

    What do you think are the most important traits in a leader?

    JF: I think it is very important that you are knowledgeable and competent in the area that you are leading. This is the number one thing that will cause people to lose respect for a leader - if it is obvious he has no idea what he is doing. People don't like following a sinking ship.

    Honesty. People have become jaded and expect the opposite. If you are always honest, you will gain people's trust. They will understand that you mean what you say, and that you are not saying something different to someone else.

    Humility. Acknowledging mistakes, not acting like a know-it-all, asking people for their opinions (and actually following up if they are good ones), being willing to jump into a task and work with people shoulder-to-shoulder goes a long way.

    Tomorrow: Jerry talks about making tough decisions and preparing to lead.

    Jerry Foster is Vice-President of Research and Development at Plex Systems.

    Saturday, May 14, 2011

    Recommended: The Lost Thing

    My friend Carol suggested a short animated film to me, The Lost Thing. I recommend it to you. Here's the trailer:

    Oscar-winning, visually stirring, with a great story.

    It makes me ask why, in this story, does the creative, the fanciful, the experimental, the fun need to be segregated? Why does the regular world of the narrative have no place for the magical creatures encountered? How is this true in our lives, and what (if anything) might we do about it?

    Friday, May 13, 2011

    The Doorstep of Summer

    It feels like summer here in my little town. In honor of that, I thought I'd repost this for my newer visitors and subscribers. Glad you're here!

          Unexplained phenomena. That's what it was to me, running around in our shaggy crabgrass at dusk. One minute, I'd be gooofing around with a Frisbee, and the next, a glowing orb throbbed ever closer. Through the treeline, over the corn, taking the occasional surprise turn before turning back toward its obvious goal: me.
          What it was, exactly, was a matter of speculation. A neighbor had told us of a terrible experience with lightening, chasing her out of the shower. I had heard of ball lightening. Perhaps, I reasoned, this was it, coming to get me now. This theory did not explain why I only saw it in the summer, so I formed the fireworks hypothesis. My mother felt very strongly that all fireworks were dangerous. She never even let us use sparklers, she was that serious. These unnatural terrors of eventide appeared around Independence Day, and what could be more fear-worthy that a firework's ability to have a rogue ember?

    Read the full post here.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011

    Sticky Songs

    Sometimes a song gets stuck in my head and I don't mind. This is one of those songs.

    Is there a song you don't mind having on mental repeat?

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011

    Morning and Marigolds

    Yesterday, guest blogger tasmith1122 wrote about and shared haiku in a post titled "Capture the Simple Things." I thought I'd take her advice and attempt this form today.

    The marigold opens,
    lifting from leaf into light.
    Every bird stirs.

    As The Rascals would sing, it's a beautiful morning.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Capture the Simple Things

    (Today's Blogathon theme is haiku. My friend and fellow writer's group member writes poetry, including this form. She graciously agreed to guest post for me. Check out her blog here.)

    What is a haiku?
    I’m not going to tell you. Well, to be more precise, I’m not going to tell you everything.  There are many sites (and I’ll list a few) where you can go to find out where haiku came from and what they are. Instead, I’d like to try to show you.
    Have you ever taken a walk or gone on a trip and seen something that took your breath away? It might have been the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, an old barn, a wild animal, a tiny insect or even a single flower. Whatever it was, it made you stop. You forgot all about what you were doing and just looked in wonder or reflection. Perhaps you took a picture, trying to capture that image, that moment. Even simple things can make you want to capture them.
    That desire to capture a single moment, but to capture it in just a very few words, that is haiku.


    bleeding hearts
    drip after rain, thrive
    despite weeds

    in our small orchard
    many nights hard frost–apples
    pears, peaches still bloom

    How do I write haiku? 

    If you want the specific rules, jump to Haiku for People link. If you just want to try your hand at it, then try this.
    First, find something that you like—a favorite tree, flower, your kids, your dog, spring sounds, and smells.
    Now use only a few words to describe it—budding tree; blushing magnolia blossoms; soft, silly bedtime child … you see?
    Next choose another image. This does not have to relate to the first, and is often better if it doesn’t.
    Again choose a few words to describe it.
    When you put the two phrases together, you have the beginnings of a haiku.
    Here are some of mine.

    my only citrus
    this morning — high, bright orange
    in cold cloudless blue
    not clutching swamp grass
    but piercing cloudless blue sky–
    one red-winged blackbird
    among evergreens
    tree frogs court, “creep, creep, creep”–love
    song infestation
    burning old branches
    winter flickering to spring
    welcome bliss blossoms
    Links to Haiku Sites:
    Haiku - A Definition  Haiku, Haiga, Haibun and Other Art-Illustrations of modern English Haiku-type Poetry.
    Haiku Poet's Hut Filled with haiku new and old, haiku info, and history
    Blue Willow Haiku World (by Fay Aoyagi) Translations of modern Japanese poetry
    Akita International Haiku Network Haiku, Haiga, Senryu, Tanka–All Beautiful

    Monday, May 9, 2011

    Musician on Goal-Setting

    I'm currently teaching four classes for junior high/high school students. One is a class on leadership. As a part of the weekly lesson, I interview a leader and share his or her insight with the group.

    This strategy came out of a very short preparation window: I didn't have a lot of time to read and research using traditional methods, but I do know some amazing people. I chased a couple of them around for an hour or two. I learned more from that conversation than I could've learned from reading an entire book. The students seemed to enjoy the real-world connection, so I've kept this interview portion of class as a weekly thing.

    I've discovered that a couple of these students are musicians. They are thinking about their future; they're dreaming big. To give them some perspective on the music industry, I asked Asa Lane, all-around cool cat and drummer for the Jason Eaton Band, to be my first formal, in-writing, interviewee for my class. I've known Asa for a while, and have always been impressed by his intensity and discipline.

    When asked to help my students, Asa said yes. I liked his answers so much that I wanted to publish them. He kindly agreed.

    How have you approached your musical career?
    Asa: I've approached it with the positive attitude that I will absolutely be making my livelyhood making and performing music. You must have that in your head no matter what "seems" "normal". Forget the traditions, the family job, the army, the desk job, etc. If you were born to play music, you must give it your best effort with the reinforcement that you WILL be successful in it. Many other things go into that though besides thinking it (practice, connections, etc.)

    Describe your training in music.
    Asa: My "official" training included my last 2 years of marching/concert/jazz band in high school. I started playing drums when I was 11, and have had 2 unofficial drum lessons from insane pros in my life totaling about 45 minutes worth of lesson time. I still use things learned from them to this day, and will continue to use and teach them!

    What kind of schedule do you follow for personal growth? How disciplined do you have to be? 
    Asa: PRACTICE. PRACTICE. PRACTICE. Seriously, practice as often and as hard as possible. If it's not music then STUDY or TRAIN or whatever it is you have to do to set yourself far above the rest. Great lawyers wouldn't cut making the OJ trial, the exceptional lawyers who have true passion for their art do. You can accomplish this by finding out what the status quo is, and then multiplying that by 10, 100, or 1000. It's up to you. An exceptional drummer once stated that it's better to practice 20 minutes a day, rather than 4 hours once a week. It'll keep you fluid in both physical and mental memory with what you're rehearsing/building upon. Remember that in all things.
    You have to be as disciplined as far as you want to take your career. Pushing yourself far beyond your comfort level is key, as well as knowing the profession like the back of your hand.

    What non-music skills have you sought to gain and why? 
    Asa: -People skills. I cannot stress enough how important it is to go up to random strangers you respect in your profession and just introduce yourself, get them to come see you play, etc. More often than naught, having the right connection is what will break you into what you want to do. The internet is a great tool for this, contact key figures in your field and try to build a relationship that way. Even more concrete is meeting them in person, shaking their hand and looking them in the eye and leaving a big impression. This will take you light years beyond just practicing in your bedroom. The rule of "6 Degrees of Separation" is much truer than you might imagine. Through developing these people skills, I communicate regularly with world class drummers and musicians, all because I pushed myself to just say hi!
    -Business. Don't spend most of your money if you can help it. Save it now, invest in your future.

    How do you feel about the idea of 'the day job'? 
    Asa: Bottom line is, you must support yourself financially eventually. If you can't make it playing music, you MUST attempt to get a day job. Play music hard when work is over. When the day comes that you can pay the bills with your music, smile, literally thank God, and DO NOT take it for granted.

    How did you know you were good enough to pursue this as work, and not just a hobby?
    Asa: I performed in a public talent show when I was in high school, and afterwards, this little girl named Kady (with a "D") came up to me with her grandmother and asked for a drumstick and for me to sign it. I did so and her grandma whispered in my ear, "You're going places kid." She actually said that, gave me chills. 

    The nail in the coffin was when I auditioned to perform with a pool of world class musicians through a Metro-Detroit church and made it with flying colors. That is when I really knew.

    What do you wish you knew more about as it relates to music?
    Asa: - Obviously there are drummers out their who can run circles around me, so to learn their technique is something I'll always continue to want to learn more about and challenge myself with.
    - Eventually, I'd like to learn to actually read music! I know very little about this and know it would further session work should I ever choose to pursue that in the future.
    - I also have a banjo that I desperately want somebody to teach me how to play!

    Is there anything else you'd want to tell my students?
    Asa: - There are thousands of excuses for not pushing yourself out of your comfort zone for anything you'll attempt. Leaps of faith are what shape us, I highly, highly encourage you to do what you know if your heart is right for you. Rock and roll.

    You can visit the Jason Eaton Band on their website, or on facebook. If you want to read my first formal interview with Asa Lane, check out

    Sunday, May 8, 2011

    The Tool Box

    I have lots of things I could say about my mom, but today, I thought I'd share a story that says more than a card or a list. It happened almost 20 years ago, and it's a perfect illustration of the sort of person my mom is.

    Twenty years ago this year, my husband and I got married. His family were, and are, big churchgoers. My future mother-in-law's peers (the church ladies, I would have called them) decided to throw me a very traditional shower. Kindly, they wanted to include my mom.

    Most people would describe my mom as a quiet person; meeting new people is not her favorite thing to do. Despite this, she agreed to go to the shower anyway. She did two things in this group of strangers that I will never forget.

    My mom attended lots of showers for me. She and my dad gave us so much; she didn't need to give me anything. She brought a gift for me anyway, and I know she selected this one with the setting in mind. Before I opened it, in front of all these unknown, dressed-up women, my mom announced that this gift was conditional. It was only for me, not for my husband.

    It was a fully stocked toolbox. A hammer of my own.

    The ladies also passed out index cards, and each one of them gave me a bit of advice to read aloud. My mom hates this sort of thing, but she participated. I'm sure the other women had lovely things to say, but the only advice I remember is hers.

    "There's more than one way to do things."

    When I read it out loud, she explained.

    She asked me if I remembered folding towels.

    I did, of course. She taught me how, and wanted it done a very specific way, tri-folded the long way, then folded into thirds, put on the shelf with the fold facing out.

    She told me that we folded the towels that way because her mom told her it was the right way. Then she asked me if all of our towels fit on the shelves when folded that way.

    No, I said.

    She said, one day, it finally hit me. My mom probably had us fold the towels this way because all of her towels would then fit into her linen closet. She said, you've learned a way to do things. Your husband's learned another way. Together, you need to find a way that works for you. There's more than one way to do things.

    Thanks Mom, for your bravery, boldness, sacrifices, humor, and insight.

    Thank your mom today.

    Saturday, May 7, 2011

    My lens

    (I don't normally blog on the weekends. This month, however, I've signed on to post once a day every day, so I'll be looking to put up something short. Perhaps it will become a series: pictures? Metaphors? I'll figure it out. Feel free to post your suggestions!)

    Do I love the sunshine just so I can look at the world through sunglasses?

    The colors are just a little more vivid through this lens. Maybe that's a metaphor for something, but that idea is going to have to wait a day or two. It's Saturday!

    Friday, May 6, 2011

    The turtles

    Yesterday, I went out with my camera and tried to visually capture spring. I stopped at a small roadside  swamp that we always pass slowly. I have no idea if this place has an official name; there's no sign posted. We call it Turtle Pond. Logs and stones dot the water, giving the shelled residents plenty of places to sun themselves. At different points in the season, we'll see twenty or more turtles.

    I started our photo shoot by pulling off to the side of the road and hopping out of my car. This was not a well-thought out maneuver; all the turtles splashed into the water. This was the best shot I could get,

    unless I wanted to take a picture of a couple of sealcoating guys working across the street. One offered to remove his shoes and socks, roll up his pants, and fetch me some. I declined.

    On my way back from town, I tried again, this time through my car window.

    I love seeing the turtles. What do you love about spring where you live?

    Thursday, May 5, 2011

    A Change of Scenery

    On a gravel road about 5 miles from here, in the fall, there is a patch of woods that once owned me. My bus ride took me by that spot for much of my childhood and I never tired of it. If I became distracted and didn't see it, I felt cheated. The house sitting on the edge of the treeline was my house; I imagined that I would live there, rooms lit by the glow of hickory leaves in some fantastic, perpetual October.

    Fall was my favorite season, but where I live now, Spring makes her case. She presents warmth, daffodils, trees coming into bud, places along my everyday path that feel like home.

    I'm not a photographer. I struggle to capture what I see: the red reeds along the roadside giving way to new growth; the willows dripping yellow-green; the tangled, glowing forsythia; grey branches surrounded by wisps of peach and orange, as if the trees themselves are tatting.

    In the battle of the best season, for today, Spring wins.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011

    Top 5 books on writing

    Today's theme for the 2011 Blogathon is your top 5 books on writing. Here's my list:

    1) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott. You can get a feel for her style by downloading an archived interview from this Writer's Digest link. (Caution: salty language.)
    2) Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark
    3) Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know about Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind
    4) Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms, William Baer
    5) The Craft of Lyric Writing, Sheila Davis

    If you're looking to be a little depressed about your budget, but inspired by commitment, tenacity, and professionalism, check out this video interview of Gay Talese. Finally, if you are interested in writing creative nonfiction, consider an online class at a satisfying experience.

    Frosty in May

    Yesterday in my little town, it was rainy and 46 degrees F, and yet The Breakfast Guru and I chose to sit around with my car window down for about twenty minutes.

    Here's the reason:

    We still have an old-fashioned, seasonal, drive-in A&W. When you order a combo 'for here', they don't ask you what kind of soda you want with that; they know. The car hops serve you root beer in a frosted glass mug.

    Now it's spring.

    For more about the rite of A&W, see this post. For a time when I actually could eat something fried, read about my visit to Joe's Gizzard City. If you want to know how the Breakfast Guru got his name, try here (or try his sausage gravy).

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011

    Creative Nonfiction Dilemmas

    I struggle when I write personal essays.

    The writing isn't the struggle. I enjoy striving to tell it straight and true, discovering real life moments worthy of examination and wonder. It's a satisfying process, from the glimmer of an idea to the first words, from the crafting and shaping to that final bit of polish.

    It's good work until that moment when I have to send it off to a publication or editor. If you saw me in that moment, you'd think that my decision to send a story was akin to triggering a nuclear war. It's not the fear of rejection making my palms sweat. It's not my financial situation, either, although if I could afford an accountant I'm sure he'd convince me to reconsider. The closing of my eyes as I face the screen, my finger pausing over my mouse, my stopping and restarting the submission process, all this hesitancy is borne from the fear that I might be misunderstood, that my appreciation of people in general might be clouded because of my words. Worse, I fear that the specific people who are a part of my story might be hurt by my rendering.

    In the very best case scenario, someone who reads about themselves through my eyes feels special. That was the lovely reaction of my neighbor (featured here). My husband and parents have been great, amazing actually, understanding that a humorous poke or a family story told is just my point of view. It doesn't negate their memories, their experiences or how they might see the situation. Other people, I know, have a harder time. At least one person has told me that I may not mention him or her by name in anything I write. I can sympathize; I will honor that request.

    Despite sweaty hands and 20 minutes of pacing, I pushed the button yesterday, on a story called "Ruined". We'll see where it goes. Until then, I'll keep writing. Maybe I'll search for opportunities to write profile essays. The advantage of that sort of piece is that the subjects know they're subjects. Even with that knowledge, it's still tough.

    Loving my genre, yet secretly wishing I was better at fiction, LT

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Rediscovery through teaching

    Teaching is an act of rediscovery. 

    Land ho ... that's one skinny mitten
    Over the past two weeks, I've had the privilege of teaching on leadership, interviewing skills, and writing powerful paragraphs. Each class has reminded and encourage me to renew my commitments to basic things.

    A class on leadership stirs me to consider vision and values. How can I help students see who they want to be? How can I help them figure out what's important? In crafting their lessons, I'm reminded of my own vision, values, and goals. I'm challenged to be a better steward of everything in my care.

    Teaching interviewing skills keeps me sharp. I sit a little straighter; I speak a little more clearly; I strive to not just 'come across' as humble and confident, but to be truly 'be' both these things. I see the students battle through their nerves during a mock interview and am encouraged to push myself a little further.

    Finally, what could be more refreshing than explaining how to write a basic paragraph? I find myself considering each simple form I present, wondering how I might be able to use it in my work.

    It's been two weeks. I've got two weeks to go. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to influence young lives, of course, but it is not simply altruistic: I'm gaining.

    Sunday, May 1, 2011

    A post a day

    I've signed up for the 4th Annual WordCount Blogathon. I'm looking forward to the challenge of posting every day in May, in the spirit of the following quote from the amazing screenwriter of Network:

    Artists don't talk about art. Artists talk about work. If I have anything to say to young writers, it's stop thinking of writing as art. Think of it as work.
    As quoted at Advice to Writers.

    For more of my thoughts on Network, read my October 2010 article at Curator Magazine.

    Saturday, April 30, 2011

    Reading about writing

    Reading about writing is like admitting you are a poverty-striken serf. You, unable to make your ground bear fruit, glean advice from the fields of the greats; you marvel at their estates; you are moved by their work. Each grain of wisdom glistens.

    Upon sitting at your own keyboard, you wonder if you'll be able to make even a biscuit from this harvest. Then you wonder if, rather than pounding the grain, you should just resign yourself to your coffee and "The Three Stooges", the one where Moe gets a climber's spike stuck in his ear.

    If you're more in the mood for an actual article on writing, try Po Bronson's Advice to Writers.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011

    Greatest version of a great song

    Right now, Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill's great version of a great song, "How Great Thou Art", is going viral. More than 3 million hits in four days is impressive. Here's the YouTube clip, if you haven't seen it:

    Who can deny her talent? And who can deny the guitar work of Vince Gill? They are extraordinary musicians, and I appreciate their artistry.

    As good as this is, it is not the best version of this song I've ever heard.

    Many years ago, I served as a drama coach with a group of teens from Michigan. One summer, I accompanied them on a trip to an area outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. They were there to run a two-part Vacation Bible School for a small church. In the mornings, young children came for teaching and games and crafts. In the afternoons, some of our teens would relax or go on sightseeing trips, but a few stayed behind with me and met with junior high students. Two older teen leaders taught, using a sketch from our drama ministry as a springboard.

    This worked, but we ran into a scheduling problem. We wanted the whole group to go and see the Grand Canyon, but would have to leave before the junior high program ended. No one wanted any teen to miss the trip, so we invited the junior highers to come with us that day, and the teen leaders planned to share a lesson inside the park.

    I don't remember the author of the sketch they selected for that day, but it was titled "Weeds.". In it, the main character (we'll call him Steve) is diligently removing weeds from the garden of his life, and has asked a garbage company to come and dispose of them. A man shows up to take a pile. Steve is delighted, but then the man hands a ticket to Steve. The weeds will come back to him as compost. This distresses Steve: he doesn't want this junk back. He wants to forget that these mistakes, these sins ever existed. The man tells Steve that's not how it works; that these weeds, transformed into compost, will now be of use to him and to God.

    On the edge of the Grand Canyon, in front of a gathering crowd, two young men performed the sketch. I had directed them; I had watched the sketch many times, and yet I found (and find) this simple metaphor moving. I've made so many mistakes in my life. I've fallen short so many times, and yet when I return to God, He doesn't work around those things, but through them, for my growth and His glory. Was I trying to distract myself when I began to look around at the impromptu audience? Probably.

    It's been years now, so I can't remember if the man I noticed was in a red or a pink shirt, but there he was, watching intently, hanging on the actors' words.

    The teens finished the lesson; we saw other sights in the park. We ate. Someone told us the very best spot to view the sunset, so we decided to end our trip there. The area was full of people and the sky was glorious; breathtaking. We were awash in pink and orange. A voice began to sing "How Great Thou Art." Some of the people poked fun at the singing, but others joined in, including many of our teens and a group of students from Korea. I found myself looking around again, and again I saw the man in the red-hued shirt, now with tears streaming down his face, singing.

    I doubt that in this lifetime, any version will ever move me more.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    Beyond self-expression

    It is a privilege to be on staff with Curator Magazine, a web publication of International Arts Movement (IAM). Today, I feel this more strongly than ever before. This post moved me. Written by IAM founder and visual artist Makoto Fujimura, it powerfully expresses a way to think about and respond to global catastrophe. A quote:

    Artists are generative by nature, but our current obsession with self-expression truncates the experience of our full humanity. We need to listen to what our hands, our eyes and our ears are detecting. Through intuition, the artistic process often reveals surprises that not even the artist anticipates.
    As I implore artists to go beyond self-expression, I implore the church to do likewise. For example, rescue efforts are not about our self-expression but about pouring the incarnate love of God into the lives of those suffering. We need to weep with them and 'waste' time by being there with them; we need a long-term commitment to befriend and follow up, rather than perform a 'hit and run' rescue effort. However, I am not dismissing the importance of people that provide for the basic needs of those in crisis.
    The key to communicating our core message of generative work is to operate out of sheer love for people ...

    Read the full post from Fujimura here. How will you be generous, move beyond self-expression, and impact the next generation?

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Cover Me

    Is a great song defined by its arrangement and instrumentation, or is it something else?

    Earliest version of "Purple Haze?"

    Here's a lyric for you. Is it country/bluegrass, pop/r&b, or punk?

    You say you stand by your man.
    Well tell me something, 'cause I don't understand.
    You said you love me, oh, and that's a fact.
    And then you left me, said you felt trapped.
    Well there's some things you can't explain away,
    and the heartache's with me to this day.

    If you know only one version, I think you're missing out. If you immediately recognized the lyric, check out a different genre:

    The original.
    A pop/r&b version by Annie Lennox.
    The Dwight Yoakam version.

    I think many great songs have the ability to transcend genre. What do you think? Do you have a favorite cover?

    This is a part of my poorly named "song a day" series. For more, check out 
    Rebel Yell
    The Two-Hit Wonders