One Step at at Time

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Leigh with her friend Tara at the March

My sister-in-law Leigh took off early yesterday morning for the Women’s March on Washington. I stayed home.

One reason for my not marching was the state of my knees. I get tired after a few hours of standing at my holiday retail job. I have a feeling walking around Washington for a day would do me in for a week or more.

I also have a fear of crowds!

More importantly, however, group protest is not my mode of self expression, particularly in this case. I got my first invitation to the march the morning after Donald Trump’s election. It seemed—and seems—to me too soon to be protesting. I would have preferred to wait and protest some specific presidential action or policy rather than the president himself.

Nevertheless, I support the right to free speech of my friends and relatives who chose to march. In fact, I happily lent my BEAUTIFUL new pink hat to Leigh to wear on her march. (See photo above.)

We all speak and protest in our own ways. I deal with things that upset me—and I have to admit that I’m not a fan of our new president—by writing and singing and talking. And staying positive.

Here’s what I want to do in the months ahead: I want to emulate the folks from Broadway’s Concert for America. They will inspire me to do creative things and to support organizations and people who can keep our country strong and wonderful and charitable and generous and (yes!) great.

I want to write passionately about things that matter. In my case, this is usually food and books—but food and books sustain life and give it meaning.

I want to sing whenever I can. In my opinion, there is very little in this world that a show tune or a spiritual can’t make just a little bit better. Music connects us as human beings. It helps us mourn, comfort each other, and then move forward and celebrate.

Above all, I want to be a good neighbor on my road, in my community, and in my world. I want to stay in contact and sympathy with all the people I know, whether they voted for Trump or Clinton or Mickey Mouse. And I want to continue to meet and converse with new people. The one thing I think Donald Trump got right in his inaugural address is the idea that our nation is about all of its citizens.

So I’ll be marching with my fingers and my voice and my smile. Not all at once but one step at a time. I hope to encounter lots of you along the way.

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Lessons from Uncle Walter

NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA/Bill Ingalls

I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to Google’s “Doodle” of the day. Today, however, I was touched to notice that the internet search engine was honoring longtime CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. Cronkite (1916 to 2009) would have turned 100 today.

I haven’t covered a lot of “straight” journalism in my years as a writer. I write reviews, craft recipes to honor specific foods and occasions, and from time to time venture into opinion. Nevertheless, I think of myself as a journalist. And my hero has always been the reporter known to millions as Uncle Walter.

Cronkite came to prominence as the leader in a generation of broadcast news reporters and anchors who hewed to old-fashioned standards of impartiality. They occasionally ventured into opinion—as his mentor Edward R. Murrow did when addressing issues like poverty and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and as Cronkite did himself when he called for an end to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1968.

By and large, however, they strove for objective truth in reporting, even though I’m sure most of them knew then, as most of us know now, that objectivity is a Platonic ideal rather than anything any of us will ever achieve.

I last saw Cronkite in the early 2000s when he was interviewed onstage at the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) in New York, where I worked for a few years. Hearing his voice then warmed my heart; it was like hearing the voice of my dead father. Both were warm, smart men who performed work they loved with integrity and lightened life with humor. And both possessed voices that charmed and informed.

If the national election in which we are currently enmired has taught us anything, it is that the ways in which we receive and deal with the news have changed. As a nation and a world we no longer share a few, elite sources of news—and, as the Pew research center has recently pointed out, Americans no longer share many of the “facts” of our political and social life. We have come a long way from aiming for that Platonic ideal of objectivity.

I know that we can’t go back to having one trusted source for news—or even a few. In many ways, that’s a good thing. I don’t necessarily buy the impression of many in this country that Cronkite had a liberal bias—perhaps because I have one myself (and what does liberal mean, really, other than “generous,” an attribute to which we should all aspire?). I do believe that as a human being he was inherently biased in some directions.

We don’t necessarily need an elite to tell us what to do and how to interpret the news. Without that elite, however, we do need to cultivate standards Uncle Walter embodied, as journalists and as human beings. These include committing ourselves to coming as close to objective truth as we can, to growing and learning, and above all to taking our time.

One of Walter Cronkite’s most famous, and most replayed, moments on the air is the one in which he announced the death of John F. Kennedy. He stops several times during his short report, to compose himself but also (it seems to me) to get his reporting right, to give himself and the people watching and listening time to process the information he is reporting.

I’m not good at pausing. In casual conversation I tend to rush in and fill the dead air space between my own sentences and everyone else’s. Remembering Walter Cronkite today and in the days to come, I’m going to try to give myself and everyone else a little more time—time to process, time to deliberate, time to be kind and truthful.

As this crazy election season at last draws to a close I hope other journalists and citizens will do the same.

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Heaven Is a Dinner Party

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the sign outside a library at which I talked about my book

I am winding up the official launch season of my new book, Pulling Taffy. Of course, I hope to talk to more women’s clubs, alumnae groups, seniors, and the like as time goes by. I have an engagement to meet with a book club in Virginia in a few weeks to hear reader reactions and answer questions, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that similar engagements will follow. The first flurry of appearances has come to an end, however.

I have had a couple of less than perfect (and less than profitable) gigs in my tour. Early in the summer I arrived at one distant library to give a talk. It was the first sunny day in a month. As a result, only five people (three of them related to me) came to my well publicized appearance. Even the librarian who had invited me went home to work in his garden instead of staying to hear me!

And one group of seniors was MUCH more interested in eating lunch than in talking or listening to me.

By and large, however, I have had a wonderful time talking about the book and about caregiving to a wide variety of people.

In fact, talking to them has been a privilege. Because my book is about very personal issues—about disease and death and parent/child relationships and caregiving—many of the people in the groups to whom I have spoken have opened up to me about their own personal concerns and experiences.

I have heard stories that have made me laugh … and stories that have made me cry. Last night I heard a story that made me do both.

A woman named Janet at the Sunderland (Massachusetts) Woman’s Club astonished me by recalling not only what I wrote in the cookbook I inscribed to her at a meeting of the club years ago but also what I sang to the group at the end of my previous appearance!

She went on to tell me a lovely story about her mother, the matriarch of a large Italian family. Like Janet (and me!), her mother loved food.

Janet’s mother always said that her personal vision of heaven was an ongoing dinner party at which her own mother was doing the cooking. Around the table were all the people she had loved during her lifetime—her siblings, her friends, her husband. One chair was empty. And when the time came and dinner was ready, she herself would sit in that chair.

Janet described visiting her very ill mother in the hospital. She looked down and whispered very softly, “Mom, I think your mother’s making dessert about now.”

Her mother whispered back, “I hope it’s pudding. And I hope it’s soon.”

And it was.

Who wouldn’t love meeting people like Janet and hearing stories like that one? (And of course she bought a book!)

Return of the Country Mouse

George

I recently spent 24 hours in New York City.

My main purpose was to attend the Peabody Award luncheon on Monday, May 20. The Peabodys, administered through the University of Georgia, were originally founded to honor excellence in radio. Now they encompass all forms of electronic communications.

I wish I could tell you that I went to the Peabodys to accept an award! Not yet.

I went because this year is the final one in which my former graduate-school professor, Horace Newcomb, will serve as the director of the Peabodys. Once he moves back from Athens, Georgia, to his home in Austin, Texas (and stops making Peabody-related trips to New York City), I’ll be unlikely to see him.

So I decided to attend the ceremonies, to which Horace has invited me every year for more than a decade. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to talk to Horace or his wife, Sara, in the hubbub of awards, congratulations, and food. I didn’t. But I wanted to talk to them one last time. I did.

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

My father always said that if one is truly lucky in higher education one will find at least one professor who really matters, who teaches one to think and encourages one to do one’s best work.

For me, Horace was one of those professors.

He is pretty much the founder of television studies in the United States. He began by teaching in an English department, in fact, since early in his career few official departments existed in which one could study or teach television.

By the time I got to the University of Texas, where I got my Ph.D. in American studies but specialized in media history, he was a well known figure in the university’s Radio-TV-Film department.

He never completely shook off his English department roots, however, which meant that in a pinch I could discuss my American literature reading list with him as well as the one for television studies. He taught me to appreciate Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreiser as well as Stephen J. Cannell and Tom Selleck. (Okay, I admit I didn’t need a lot of teaching to appreciate Tom Selleck, but Horace helped me understand WHY I appreciated him beyond his good looks.)

I wasn’t Horace’s best or even favorite student. He was always generous with his time, however. He inspired me to hone my writing and my analysis of stories told in any medium.

And he occasionally talked me down from the metaphorical ledge when I was feeling stressed out by life as a Ph.D. candidate.

When I decided to ask outside readers to give an honest appraisal of my new memoir, Pulling Taffy, Horace was one of the few people to whom I sent the manuscript. He offered insightful suggestions for reshaping the book. I didn’t implement them all, but they set me on the path I ended up taking.

I was happy to hand a copy of the book to him and Sara after the Peabody luncheon.

I was also happy just to be there for the awards, which went to a remarkable bunch of people and radio/TV/web productions. Some of these (Lorne Michaels, HBO, Doctor Who) were known to me. Others were new. These included Filipinos who had created a video exposé of child malnutrition in their country and a Phoenix news station crew whose in-depth reporting on the cause of a local automobile accident eventually led to a federal inquiry and the recall of hundreds of thousands of vehicles.

I left with a happy feeling from having encountered Horace and Sara; a few celebrities (I saved a departing elevator for Judd Apatow!); the glorious art-deco palace that is the Waldorf Astoria Hotel; and the hustle and bustle of New York, which always invigorates me.

Judd didn't offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

Judd didn’t offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

I also left with a piece of chocolate shaped like a Peabody Award and a bouquet of aromatic flowers that survived the bus ride back to Massachusetts and graced my table here for more than a week.

Most importantly, I left with inspiration. All the people accepting Peabody Awards were passionate about their work, and all of them had told stories that mattered.

I hope that my next big story will matter, too. I’m not sure what that story will be, of course; I’m running around like a crazy person publicizing my current book! But I’m cogitating. Stay tuned….

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One Today (or the Forest/Tree Dilemma)

Richard Blanco performs a sound check for the inauguration (courtesy of Richard Blanco)

I love watching presidential inaugurations on television. Even if I haven’t voted for the current president, at least one day in four years I feel a sense of common purpose with our chief executive, with other elected officials, and with fellow citizens glued to the spectacle in person or over the airwaves.

I am sometimes a little petty so of course as a chanteuse I found things to criticize in some of the musical offerings during yesterday’s inauguration. (Is it now against the rules to perform a patriotic song the way it was written?)

I thought the basic theme of the president’s speech was solid, however. And I was moved to tears by Richard Blanco’s poem “One Today.”  As I age (and I age very slowly, of course), poems seem to speak to me more and more. This one invoked the many landscapes, languages, and occupations of Americans in order to draw us together as one people to visualize, name, and create our future.

It may seem odd that a poem about unity should rely on so very many individual images—of prayers, of stalks of wheat, of doors and clotheslines, of blackboards and trains and tragedies and smiles. Nevertheless, it is detail that makes life rich. So each lone image Blanco added to his poetic soup kettle made the flavor stronger and more distinctive.

I am a detail-obsessed person. One of the agents whom I approached about representing my forthcoming book about my mother felt uncomfortable with its reliance on vignettes. She told me that she would be more inclined to represent the book if I reworked it into a narrative instead of a mosaic.

I considered taking her advice but ultimately decided against it. I experience life in mosaic form. Perhaps others do not. But to me, life’s narrative isn’t clear or well structured. It shifts shape messily all the time. And it is the richer because of its shape shifting.

I am aware of the dangers of eschewing the forest for the trees. We have to have a sense of how our life is going in general in order to understand that life. Nevertheless, I will always err a little bit on the side of the trees. I can see my whole last year with my mother—indeed, her whole life—in her favorite poem (“The Owl and the Pussycat”) or a bowl of succotash or the image of her weak little body poised on top of a cardboard box trying to balance itself.

It is life’s individual moments that make us laugh, cry, feel, and connect with others—that make us feel alive.

So I stuck with the mosaic form. Thanks to Richard Blanco, I feel better today that I did. And I feel proud to be part of the mosaic he described.

Just for fun, a photo from my book. This picture could in fact sum up my mother's life: her smile never changed.

Just for fun, a photo from my book. This picture could in fact sum up my mother’s life: her smile never changed.

The Heath Fair and the Creative Process

I participated in a book reading/signing over the weekend at the annual agricultural fair in Heath, Massachusetts.

The Heath Fair is my favorite fair in the world. One can walk through the entire thing, from the exhibit hall to the grandstand for tractor and animal pulls, in 20 minutes … although generally it takes much longer to walk through it since one has to stop to look at wares for sale, buy something to nibble on, check out the animals and the children’s games, and talk to the people passing by.

(The Heath Fair is like our local general store. It’s impossible to go there without running into people one knows.)

Composer Alice Parker and I, the Divas of Hawley, were scheduled to discuss our writing around midday on Sunday. The local-author tent in which we appeared was organized by Jack Estes and Betsy Kovacs, who run a small press called Pleasure Boat Studio from their homes in Heath and New York City.

The discussion crystallized some thoughts I had been having about the nature of creativity.

I recently read Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer talks about the ways in which individual brains and groups of people work most creatively. His book has been recalled by the publisher in recent weeks because the author got a bit too “creative” himself and made up quotations from Bob Dylan. (I have never been able to understand the suicidal impulses that lead some journalists to exaggerate their reporting in this fashion.) Nevertheless, Lehrer’s writing helped me understand the ways in which I work.

His “individual brain” section indicated that there are two particularly fertile ways in which brains can come up with new ideas. One is by just working and working and working and working away at a problem. The other, ironically, is by letting go of worry, letting go of conscious thought, and daydreaming. Somehow when one does this, he argues, the brain can make totally new connections that shed light on the problem at hand.

I realized as I read the book that I indulge in both of these modes when I’m writing something important to me. I outline and make lists and write and rewrite. When I’m really stuck, however, I lie down, close my eyes, and let my brain drift. Frequently, a moment of insight occurs during these drowsy moments.

Our discussion helped me hone that realization … and apply it to singing as well as writing.

Alice read a passage from her book The Anatomy of Melody, in which she described the process by which Ella Fitzgerald might have approached a song by George Gershwin. Alice’s point was that Fitzgerald was truer to Gershwin when she left the written music behind and interpreted a song than she would have been had she just sung the notes “as written.” In fact, Alice suggested, a song doesn’t really exist “as written”; it is dead until a singer breathes life into it.

The next author to speak after us was religious historian and philosopher Jim Carse. Jim talked about (among other things!) the ways in which he learned to write, think and talk by NOT thinking. The trick, he explained, was to think and think and think and do lots of research and then stop thinking and forget all the research.

Jim Carse at the Heath Fair (Courtesy of Betsy Kovacs)

Alice asked me how I learn a song. I explained that I start with the notes on the page—or, if I’m lucky, with a tape recording of the melody. Once I get the melody running through my head, however, I let go of the notes and start playing with them. I act them out and feel them.

“A song is emotion,” I said. “If you’re not feeling it, if you’re just thinking it, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Some days I’m a little profound. (And some days I’m a little immodest.)

Today as I remember our discussion I feel lucky … to have meaningful work to do that involves my mind and heart, to have creative people to listen to and work with, and to live in a community that offers events like the Heath Fair.

I hope I never stop learning … or enjoying country pastimes.

For more details on the Heath Fair, including photos of the fair in general and author links, visit this post by the wonderful Pat Leuchtman, another author who appeared at the writers’ booth!

The Divas of Hawley

School’s Out!

From the family albums:
Jan and Abe bring my older brother David home from the hospital.

I went to my last writing workshop last week. As I wrote a few weeks back, this writing group was sponsored by the local hospice organization and was designed to help the bereaved deal with their grief. I decided to attend because I had always wanted to see what a writing group would be like.

In general the experience was fascinating. I enjoyed listening to the other participants’ essays about their lost loved ones and their loss. In the end, however, I am glad the thing is over. As the weeks went by, I continued to feel out of synch with my fellow grievers, who seemed, in their writing, to be stuck in the past.

When I write about the past–and those of you who read my blogs regularly will know that I certainly do–I do so to analyze things that happened, people whom I knew, in the hope that those things and people can inform me in my path forward through life.

I write to construct my life, not to deconstruct it. And I felt that the group was mainly deconstructing, that it was pulling me into the past when I wanted to move into the future.

I knew that my fellow writers found the workshop more useful than I did so I didn’t mention my feelings to them. Everyone grieves differently, and I’m sure that the workshop helped the others a lot.

And I couldn’t ever forget that I was in a fortunate position relative to my fellow writers. They came to the workshop in order to write, to give voice to their feelings. I write and give voice to my feelings every day.

Nevertheless, I did write a few rather sweet essays. I’m sharing a brief one below as a farewell to the group. It’s apropos since right now my brother, my sister-in-law, and I are going through my parents’ old albums and diaries. The writing cue was a poem called “What the Living Do.”

What the Living Do (Tinky’s version)

The living hurry. We get annoyed. The dead don’t seem to be in much of a hurry—and if they’re annoyed they certainly haven’t told ME about it.

The dead don’t make lists.

And I don’t think they worry about the weather, although we were careful to send my parents’ bodies off in warm, cozy clothes just in case.

Their only work now is to rest … and to inspire us with biographies and memories.

We, the living,

… feed the pets and cook supper,
… do housework (not a lot of it in my case, but more than the dead in any case),
… take casseroles to the sick and the newly bereaved,
… try to make a living,
… exercise when we can,
… talk on the phone and read the paper and watch TV and send emails.

We also feed the only hunger left in the dead: to have their lives, now seen in full narrative arc, remembered and examined.

We laugh or at least smile at the jokes we thought we had heard too many times when they still lived.

We turn the decaying pages of old albums and review—relive—moments of their lives: the first words they uttered, their fresh faces at graduations, the huge grins that greeted babies and grandchildren.

All the moments of their lives merge in memory … so that we, and they, can finally say that we love each other as whole people.