Some Write Stuff

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” — Mark Twain

I know a thing or two about writing. When I taught eighth graders, I managed to get them to produce some pretty good stuff.

We hit all the genres – memoirs, persuasive pieces, and even the dreaded five-paragraph essays, a beast known only in the classroom and nonexistent in the real world. I’d pull out my well-worn bag of tricks filled with lesson plans that guided middle-schoolers to brainstorm, zero in on topics, and write first drafts. Then we revised – my specialty. I pushed them to show, not tell, to use sensory images, to explode the big moments with details – we called them “snapshots” and “thoughtshots” –inner dialog, flash-forwards, and flashbacks.

Of course, except for some snippets here and there to model a strategy, I didn’t do much writing on my own. Not with heaps of papers to read and grade. I could get kids to write, just not myself.

When retirement rolled around, my excuses for not writing vanished. I joined a group at home and plodded along. I managed to get a few things published in our annual literary magazine, and the Chicago Tribune printed a Christmas memory of mine. I started a blog when we went to Paris, and kept it up sporadically.

Then, we became snowbirds. I couldn’t do the pool and the beach every day, so I decided to find a group. How fortunate I’ve been to land in the Lifelong Learning Academy’s Writing Workshop.

I may know a thing or two about writing, but these people know everything. And, they’re nice to boot. No one has scoffed or rolled his eyes at my attempts, and I’ve been showered with sound advice and suggestions. I’ve branched out into fiction, and have been attentively listened to and nudged to do more.

And, I’ve had the privilege of hearing other writers, far more skilled than I’ll ever be, share their work. Each week, we class members are treated to a cornucopia of good stories. I’ve sat on the edge of my seat, wondering if a young servant will push the button on the suicide bomb he’s wearing. I’ve traveled to India, and shared an expat’s excitement at wearing a glamorous golden sari at an elegant party. I’ve hopped on a horse, and felt the undignified thud of an impetuous girl’s fall from his back. My heart has been broken by the abuse and cruelty that rained down on a sensitive little girl who loved a stray cat. I’ve even seen how to plan the perfect murder.

One writer has invited me to Maine, providing a funny and factual behind-the-tourist-traps glimpse of what Mainers (or is it Maniacs?) are really like. A story of the Cuban Missile Crisis has had me holding my breath, and I’m still wondering what happened to the main character’s lover Arlette. I’ve vicariously spent a frigid December in Superior, Wisconsin, meeting the soon-to-be in-laws of a shy law student, then shuddered in horror as I’ve witnessed the atrocities in the trenches of France during World War I. A sleazy PR guy with the smart mouth and an appetite for pain meds has kept me laughing and guessing what he’ll do next. In a story set in pre-WWII New York, I’ve felt the frustration of a teenager who’s forced to share her bedroom with her nasty grandmother. I’m captivated by a novel set the Underground Railroad that has illuminated the lives of slave and slave owner alike. I can’t wait to know what will happen next.

The workshop’s three hours zooms by. The rich stories, the writerly conversations, and the occasional reminders about dangling modifiers from our resident grammarian are just plain fun for a writing geek like me.

This season’s session is ending, and I’m going to muddle through without my weekly dose of inspiration. Signing up for next year’s sessions? You bet! As Snoopy says, “It’s exciting when you’ve written something that you know is good.”


So, the Sixties Called…


“You know that it would be untrue

You know that I would be a liar;

If I was to say to you

Girl, we couldn’t get much higher

Come on, baby, light my fire,

Come on baby, light my fire.” — Jim Morrison and the rest of The Doors.

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It was a postcard-perfect night at Ca d’ Zan, the John and Mabel Ringling mansion. Warm breezes rustled the palms, and bright sunshine with just enough puffy clouds that promised to give the sunset over the Sarasota Bay some character.

Paisley Craze, the band, kept the dance floor packed, and the crowd — some professionals doing the after-work thing sprinkled among the Sarasota snowbirds– sang along with every tune. Why is it, I pondered, that we can remember every word of “Light My Fire” or “Hanky Panky” but can’t remember the birthdates of our grandkids?

A guy whose bald head glistened in the evening sun belted out “My baby does the hanky panky.” Was the grandmotherly gal in sensible sandals and the neat cap of gray hair really that

“pretty little girl standin’ all alone

“Hey, pretty baby, can I take you home?”

What if there were bubbles over the dancers’ heads that showed their yearbook pictures from back in the day?

The lady with the flowing gray tresses – was she at Woodstock in ‘69? Did she keep the tye dye tee shirt she wore, or did her teenagers use it to wash their cars back in the early 90’s?

The tall guy with the paunch creeping over his belt? Was he a stud basketball player on the all-Indiana prep team back in ‘66? Today, I bet his granddaughter can beat him in a game of one-on-one in the driveway.

The chubby gal in the GOIF (Good Only in Florida) flower print top and white capris? Maybe she wore the crown of Homecoming Queen of Geneva, Illinois the year that MLK and RFK were assassinated. She still looks put together, but probably uses a lot less hairspray.

The woman with the frosted hair and the Lily Pulitzer skirt? I’m guessing she was a preppy back then, wearing Bass Weejuns with shiny pennies and clutching a madras Bermuda bag with interchangeable covers.

The guy in the country club ball cap and muted plaid shorts with coordinating belt may have been the guy in the Andy Williams sweater I saw at a long-ago sock hop, grooving to “Wild Thing.” Tonight, he remembered every word.

“You make my heart sing.

You make everything groovy

Wild thing.”

The Tommy Bahama-shirted fellow – whatever happened to the Hendrix poster that once was taped onto his cinder block dorm room wall? The poster must be long gone, and the fog of marijuana seems to have lifted. He can still sing

“Purple haze, all in my brain

Lately things don’t seem the same

Actin’ funny, I don’t know why

Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”

As for me, I’m still with the guy who ditched the horn-rimmed glasses, shaggy sideburns, and cut-off jean shorts ages ago, and who won my heart with

“I’m your vehicle, baby

I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.

Thank God in heaven, you know I love you.”


Look closely. When we baby boomers talk about a rocker, we sure don’t mean the chair on the porch.






A Martyr in the Mall


“We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls.” – Bill Bryson



Back in my Catholic school days, we learned a lot about the lives of the saints, and we kids were fascinated by the holy martyrs and their grisly deaths. Sometimes our books even featured a picture, a little peek at Renaissance art. There was St. Stephen, stoned to death, St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows, and St. Polycarp, who, along with the misfortune of a silly name, was burned at the stake, but when the flames didn’t kill him, he was stoned to death.

In a Rembrandt of Stephen, his cheeks are sallow and his mouth turned down; after all, he’s being pummeled by rocks. But his eyes gaze heavenward, beseeching God to take him. Poor Sebastian is depicted in much the same way — longsuffering, pitiful, haunting eyes. I saw just such a face, melancholy and poignant, recently, when I was shopping at Chico’s at the outlet mall.

My friend MJ and I had no necessary purchases in mind, but that didn’t stop us from wandering around the shops. In Chico’s, MJ was having better luck than I. I’d already tried on a top – too frumpy– and had voiced my opinions on MJ’s selections. (The black dress needed a scarf.) After I unsuccessfully scoured the jewelry bar for any on-sale earrings calling my name, I waited up front while MJ made her final decisions on some must-haves. Near the door, I couldn’t help but notice a glassy-eyed husband slumped over on a chair, wearing the same wretched expression of poor old St. Sebastian. No arrows were flying, just an onslaught of prattle from his wife, lacking a female companion to share her enthusiasm and oblivious to her spouse’s misery.

“I really need some easy-to-pack things for our cruise,” she said, tossing some wrinkle-free pants and a skirt over her arm, a crisp lime linen shirt over the other. “This kind of top is exactly what I want, but I don’t like the print,” she said, fingering a gaudy floral knit.

The woman zipped around the racks. I imagined that she saw herself strolling on the starboard deck, her hair tousled by a Caribbean breeze, her new, flowy skirt billowing around her ankles, her new sweater thrown ever-so-casually over her shoulders. But it didn’t appear that her husband was imagining a glamorous cruise ship at the moment. His drooping shoulders and glazed eyes made me guess that he saw himself in hell. While the wife fingered the coral chiffon tunic, the gauzy pink poncho, the shrugs in jade and aqua, she nattered on to her husband, whose eyes hadn’t blinked.

“What a lovely color, but what would I wear with it?”

“Would this be too sheer? I’d need a tank.”

“What a pretty shade of green. It’s not exactly a mint green. Maybe seafoam?”

Her comments were met with a “huh” or two, nothing more. I almost chimed in, wanting to fill in the gaps with womanly advice: “You could wear that with white or navy” and “I’d call that shade celery.” But, I held my tongue and eyed her mate.

Just what was he thinking? I mentally climbed into his skull to hear his thoughts.

“For the love of all that is holy, when will she be finished?”

“Doesn’t she already have black pants?”

“God, that purply thing is ugly, but if she likes it, I’m keeping my mouth shut.”

“Is there anywhere in this godforsaken mall where a guy can get a drink?”

I spotted my friend at the tail end of the long check-out line just as the cruise-bound woman said, “I’m going to try these on. Here, hold my purse.”

I happily occupied myself with scrolling through Facebook on my phone, knowing that I’d soon be checking out summery sweaters at Talbot’s, but the mister had no such diversion. He simply sat, slack-jawed, his wife’s straw handbag on his lap. He glanced at his watch and heaved a sigh. After several minutes, my friend was headed my way, her purchases completed, just as the wife came out of the dressing room and approached her husband.

“As soon as I pay for these,” she said, holding up a pastel pile of frocks, “let’s pop over to Naturalizer. I can really use some black sandals, and maybe some linen espadrilles.” She didn’t see his eyes roll as she got in the check-out line… but I did.