I first published this post last New Year’s Eve. I’ve added an update at the end.
Although I rarely go to New Year’s Eve parties any more (cue: one big whine and then a hefty sigh of relief), when I was growing up NYE always meant parties. My parents went to one or hosted one every year.
In the sixties, my parents held their parties in the basement of our house. Mom draped a paper tablecloth over the ping-pong table and Dad stocked the bar he’d built in the corner. He set up table games and placed ashtrays on every available surface. When he dragged out the box with the hats and noisemakers and boas I scrambled to help. My favorite was the noisemaker blow out. When I blew on the pipe end, the little roll of paper unfurled with a sputtery raspberry. The tin drums which spun on wind-up stems sounded a raucous blare, so Dad would grab one of those and twirl it.
In the kitchen, my mother made canapés and Chex Mix. She refrigerated 7-Up and washed the “frosted” highball glasses. Gold leaves, which I was sure were 24k gold leaf, decorated the crystal.
These plastic clips identified which drink to refill: Rum-and-Coke, Seven-and-seven, Gin-and-tonic, Scotch-and-soda.
I’m not saying I was a snoop, but I could hear everything. I could even see a flash of the neighbor’s shiny bald head or Dad’s hand dealing cards through the register in the floor right near my bed. I sat on the floor for hours with my legs cramped up underneath me.
While I didn’t hear anything of particular interest, the social interactions between the adults—their jokes, the vibrations in their voices, the sudden bursts of laughter– kept me straining my hearing. Dad’s loud, excited voice rose above the others. Everyone else faded into a background buzz in comparison with him. Dad was the life of the party.
For his 80th birthday I made him a video of his life, and when Dad saw himself on video, he said, “I didn’t know I was so obnoxious!” I had to laugh to myself at that because it isn’t as if nobody has told him that over the years. Mostly, though, his enthusiasm for having a good time has been infectious. At eighty-four he still likes to stir things up. I suspect he’ll be wearing a hat and sounding his noisemaker at midnight tonight in Michigan.
Dad is ready for the party!
This year Dad is, of course, 85. I will be seeing my parents the day after tomorrow, so I can ring in the New Year with them just a tad late.
I use Grammarly to check plagiarism online because I want to find out if somebody’s pilfered something from my head before I can use it.
Yes, sometimes I feel as if somebody gets the ideas out before I get a chance.
Seriously, though, if you’re wondering why I wrote that first sentence it’s because I got a nice present from Grammarly for linking to them. But the truth is that I like Grammarly and that’s the only reason I am writing this post. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think the product had value.
I used to teach college, and there were always those papers. “Those papers” came in different forms.
There were the well-written papers by people who can’t string two sentences together for a quiz.
There were the well-written papers that were definitely not written to fulfill the writing prompt.
There were the very awful papers with a big patch of grammatical writing smack in the middle of sentence fragments and misspellings.
There were the papers that sounded like a review on Amazon (and were).
There was the papers like the one I got from a white female about the experience of a black male from a previous generation (turned out to be Langston Hughes).
You get the idea. They were plagiarized papers. You know, the ones where I spent a lot more time grading them than the students spent “writing” them.
I wish I’d had Grammarly to use for these papers. So what do I like it for now that I am no longer teaching? It’s a quick fix that tells me if a piece of writing has grammar issues or if it accidentally cribs somebody without giving credit. My daughter and I have been working on her acting and music website, and we used Grammarly to help smooth out the text.
I’m not an expert on grammar because my training in teaching English was in reading and analyzing literature and in writing fiction and poetry. And I’m not a grammar snob either, although I have some friends who are (they are the ones who make grammar jokes on Facebook).
My students used to ask me if there was something like “spell check” for grammar. There wasn’t anything that worked well.
But now there is Grammarly.
So I ran the above through Grammarly. The results were 21 errors and a score of 56 out of 100! Huh? For an ex-teacher of–wait for it–English?!
I proceeded to use Grammarly the way it is intended: as a little nag that makes you stop and look at a variety of possible errors. The first few errors were related to the name Grammarly. Because it ends with an -ly it read the word as an adverb. That’s understandable. But it shows that you have to use Grammarly as a guide, not as a model.
Another error was that I began the third sentence with the conjunction “but.” This usage is not proper for formal writing, but hey, this is a blog post, and I like it to be more conversational. Don’t you? But I appreciate the reminder.
Grammarly didn’t like my first sentence because it is wordy. Thanks, Grammarly :).
Now look at the second item in my list. It reads: “There were the well-written papers that were definitely not written to fulfill the writing prompt.” Grammarly advises me that I do not necessarily need the modifier “definitely.” I sure don’t. But I like it because it adds emphasis. Oops, I just started a sentence with a conjunction again. Actually, I am really glad it pointed out the “definitely” though because I am prone to overusing modifiers.
Overall, a lot of the errors Grammarly found were because I wrote the blog post in a conversational style, using informal grammar. But for more formal purposes, like my daughter’s website or professional writing, these prompts from Grammarly are invaluable. Also, there are two explanations for each error–a long one and a short one!
WOW, LOOK AT THIS!
But wait. There are different formats to use for reviewing your writing! I was running my blog post through “General.” They also offer Business, Academic, Technical, Creative, and Casual.
I ran the above section of this post through Creative and got only 5 errors, and through Casual I received 4. Most of these were stop-and-consider notices, not true errors.
One caveat . . .
Up above, I wrote this sentence: “There was the papers like the one I got from a white female about the experience of a black male from a previous generation (turned out to be Langston Hughes).”
Do you notice the error? There was should be There were. But Grammarly didn’t catch it the first time or the second or the third. Then I isolated the sentence and tried it alone, and Grammarly told me I had zero errors.
Bottom line is this
I really like Grammarly. I’ve been waiting for it for a long time. It performs some of the same functions as the WordPress proofreader, but is much more elaborate and specific. It’s not meant to be used on its own to edit your writing. It’s meant to be your partner in the process. You need some knowledge of English grammar and punctuation to get the most out of the program.
And for some reason running text through the review is almost as addictive as Candy Crush.
Here’s a little image for my grammar snob friends:
I know that Christmas lights use too much energy. They aren’t the best thing for our environment. But there is something about the big light displays that bring me joy. Maybe you, too.
When I lived in California, there was a magical display every Christmas at a house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Another house on the street had a big lighted arrow, pointing to the display, which said: DITTO. That always gave me a chuckle.
In Phoenix, where I live now, there is a house with the same type of display, but this one also has window displays of vintage carousels and Christmas village buildings and characters.
Sometimes I wonder what motivates someone into putting so much time and effort and, let’s face it, money into such a temporary display. But I suspect it’s the inner child, which lurks inside many of us. It’s why some of us collect dolls, some love vintage or antique cars, and some spend every weekend off-roading. What do I mean by inner child? The part of us that loves to play.
Do you think that keeping a sense of play is important to your adult life?
If you celebrate Christmas, I hope it’s a magical one.
I first posted this story over a year ago, just after I started this blog. It begs the question of whether there is coincidence or serendipity in the little treasures we find as we “scavenge” our lives while writing about them. It’s also connected with a motif of trash, scrap, salvage, and scavenge in my book Scrap: Salvaging a Family (thanks to Renee for helping me with the subtitle).
Before my father hauled garbage, he worked in sales, hawking teepee burners. In the sixties, these giant iron pyramids were sold to city dumps to burn mill waste. They were shaped like teepees, hence the name, and banded with iron straps.
Since the only dumps which needed teepee burners were in cities with paper mills, Dad’s territory was enormous and he had to fly to many of his accounts.
At three, I sat on the bed while Mom tucked Dad’s socks and underwear into the corners of his suitcase, around his second suit and the shirts which had been starched and folded at the dry cleaners.
“How will Daddy fly there, Mommy?” I imagined my father traveling with Peter Pan.
“In an airplane. You’ll see. You can come with me when I take him.”
The next morning, my father wore a gray wool suit with a pocket handkerchief embroidered with his initials tucked into the breast pocket. His dark hair, graying at the edges, was swept back from his forehead into a little mound, a remnant of his teen pompadour. He stooped down to me in the airport parking lot and hugged me, rocking me from side to side. He kissed the top of my head. I studied his black wing tip shoes and their intricate pattern of tiny punch holes. Then Dad stood up and kissed my mother goodbye.
She and I stood at the chain link fence and watched my father climb the steps into the plane. As it took off into the sky, we both waved goodbye to Dad’s plane.
The plane slid above us across the filmy clouds, my daddy’s black shoes hanging from the plane’s belly. As he tucked them up smartly into the plane, I wailed while Mom hustled me to the car.
I’ve never been able to leave this image behind. The shoes being pulled mechanically into the sleek, sealed belly of that plane.
I learned much later that the shoes were the wheels of the plane.
It was only after I started writing creative nonfiction and planning my memoir that I started to wonder why that particular memory was so vivid and kept rising to the surface so insistently. I started picking at it, trying to crack the code as I described in my post “Breaking the Codes of Childhood.”
Why was this memory so important?
Armed with Sven Birkerts’ wisdom about the memoirist using present-day understanding to interpret the past, I realized that the memory was connected to writing and reading because it only follows me down those paths.
Perhaps coincidentally, I recently had begun studying more thoroughly the experiences of adoptees like my children and my brother. The lives of adoptees are saturated with a profound initial loss. Since I was the “birth child” in my family and I had grown up with my biological parents, sharing holidays with the extended family, I’d never thought of loss in my own life. After all, I have been so blessed with family, both bio and adoptive, and a husband of (how many is it now?) 37 years.
Now I belatedly recognize that what I felt that day standing in a row of weeds at the fence was loss. I thought that my father was gone forever, swallowed up by that metal monster in the sky.
Maybe if I’d been in my mother’s arms when we waved, it would have eased the moment. But we stood as two separate entities waving up into the sky, our hands fluttering futilely, it seemed to me.
When my father came home from his business trip, I no doubt saw that he was alive and healthy. I had him back. That part I don’t remember.
When I write, this memory is always there, locked in a door behind whatever other memory sparks the writing that day. When I read, it shapes my reading in ways I can’t imagine. When I read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the memory colors my reading of the initial lines and therefore the entire poem:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
The “poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” had such resonance for my younger self. That stanza felt ready-made for me.
But that’s part of the coincidence of writing and of reading. My writing and my reading are colored by my own experiences. I started writing this post yesterday and then took a break with poetry, picking up a book which seems to speak to my memoir project, Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water. I read a poem I had missed before, “The Late Cold War.” These are the final lines:
Sir, when i think of poetry keeping you alive i know
you were entered by incomprehensible light
in the hour of lemon & water
& the great wound of the world has slipped a code
into your shoe
A poem doesn’t fail when you set your one good wing on the ground
It is the wing
It doesn’t abandon you
What serendipity. The wing does not abandon me, but takes me writing, just as I saw that plane gliding up above me. The plane I wanted to follow behind.
Do you experience coincidence or serendipity in your own reading and/or writing?
Last week I discovered that some of my earlier posts that had cost me effort and time have never received very many views. I posted a poll about whether I should re-post or re-blog these posts to free up some time this month to work on my book. The re-posts won, so here is a story I first posted on November 29, 2012. It’s about the elm trees in Kalamazoo when I was a kid.
At the end I’ve added a couple of new points.
On a Sunday afternoon, my parents and I visited my grandparents who lived in the same house where my mother grew up. We ate our dinner at 2PM and then, predictably, all the women and my dad wanted to go for a walk. Grandpa was determined to watch the game on TV, so I’m fairly sure that Dad felt a responsibility to stay with Grandpa and missed the exercise.
We walked all the way uptown, as my grandmother called it, through neighborhood after neighborhood of modest two-story homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A parade of old trees shadowed the sidewalks, which were blanketed by their colored, speckled, and spotted leaves.The garlands of branches overhead, the twinkling of sunlight in patches through those branches, and the crunchy path under our feet promised to launch me into a magical world.
Then I noticed that some of the trees, the ones with the symmetrical leaves, not the knobby turkeys of the oaks and maples, wilted drastically. The leaves were pale, odd-looking, not merely turning their customary autumn yellow.
I asked why the trees were so thirsty. Grandma looked sad. I’d never seen her sad before. Her Mrs. Claus face always beamed at me. Mom and Aunt Alice mirrored her unhappy expression. Grandma said that the trees had gotten the new plague, Dutch Elm Disease.
In the weeks to follow, I heard a lot of talk about the devastation of the elm trees in Kalamazoo from this disease. I thought the disease local to our city because the city’s main ethnic population was Dutch–like much of my family. Reasoning that the trees were Dutch, too, I figured that’s why they were susceptible to this illness.
Devastation of Dutch Elm Disease
I believe that the afternoon of that family walk I came down with pink eye. I remember my eyes were sore and tired. As soon as we got back to Grandma’s, I fell asleep and Dad carried me to the car. The next morning my eyes wouldn’t open and I couldn’t go to my first grade class. Instead, my mother had to bathe my eyes with a solution several times a day for a week.
Over the years, we took walks after many dinners, and considering the strange ways of memory, I can’t be certain that my pink eye occurred on the same day I saw the trees dying, but it feels that way to me.
Did my eyes really suffer after seeing so many trees in distress? Or did I only associate the two events later?
Apparently, Dutch Elm disease is an international tree disease, which began in Europe in or before 1910. It had spread to Detroit by 1950 and to Chicago by 1960. Kalamazoo is halfway between Detroit and Chicago, so it makes sense that around 1960 or 1961, Kalamazoo’s trees were already looking ravaged.
In the past year I have been thinking more and more about the ways of memory. When I wrote this, I thought it probable that I got pink eye the same day I first noticed the diseased trees. But now I am leaning toward the view that I only associated these events in my mind. Do you have any memories you suspect might be two separate memories which have become “glued” together?
Renee is one of my in-person writing buddies. Look what she’s doing with her lovely book! This book she recommends by Stuart Horwitz is already winging its way to me so that I can do the same thing with mine. Best of luck, Renee!! xo
I’m feeling stressed about working on my book. I have to get a draft together for the spring tutorial for my Stanford writing certificate. My parents will be living near me for two months, so we will be compressing a lot of visits into that time period. And lately, every day work gets out of hand and I don’t get to my writing.
So I was thinking that it would be smart to re-post or re-blog some posts that I liked but that didn’t get a lot of traffic when they were first posted.
But how do you feel about re-posting versus re-blogging? If I re-blog, you will have to follow the link to get to the original post. That way you can join the commenting over there, if you see fit. If I re-post, you get the whole post on the page, looking fresh as the day it was written. And it would start with a blank slate for commenting.
I’d like to start this right away and keep it up until fairly early in January. I’ll still be around to read other blogs and to respond to comments, but the time I would spend writing posts probably ought to be spent on the book for the rest of this month.
So which is it? Re-blog or re-post?
Thanks for taking the poll and letting me know how you feel!
On another note, when my kids were in town, we all went to see the ZooLights at the Phoenix Zoo. We had a good time together, although I was not impressed with the customer service of the zoo management. Here are a few pix from that night.
If you’re a writer, sooner or later, you are going to need a headshot.
Until recently, I’d been using a regular pic from my camera for a headshot. That’s what you see on my Gravatar. It looks like this:
Here’s a secret about this shot. This is only half the pic. The other half is my kind and wonderful and pretty friend Trish. I callously cut her out of the photo just to have a headshot to use for blogging!
This is still one of my favorite photos, but it is 2 1/2 years old and there have been a few times recently where I was asked for a headshot–and I didn’t have a real headshot.
I couldn’t ask my husband to take a pic of me in some fun, engaging pose because he has a problem with cameras. He’s the smartest guy I know. He can do all kinds of dazzling thinking and make amazing mechanical repairs. His range of knowledge is genius. But put a camera in his hands and he gets a befuddled, almost frightened, look on his face. My daughter is an actor and after a performance of the musical Chicago I handed him my camera, showed him which button to press, and posed with my daughter and another performer. He brilliantly captured three sets of feet!
So I knew I needed a professional photographer if I was going to get a headshot. Finding him was easy because I used my daughter’s most recent headshot photographer, Christopher Barr.
I put off scheduling the appointment for weeks. OK, I actually put it off for months. I thought I was going to lose a little weight before the photos, but all I did was add a few wrinkles to the face in the meantime.
The thought of being in front of the camera instead of behind it was more than I could comprehend. After all, I’d been a dance and theatre mom for years, always there with the camera and camcorder, recording every step, every line, every note. I was the writer, observing other people and writing about them. I even have to impersonally observe myself in order to write stories about my life. I can wear my old yoga pants and hoodie while I write. My own hair can be a mess and my makeup non-existent when I’m photographing others.
Finally, I decided to jump in with both feet and schedule an appointment. The photographer’s assistant Jane said all I had to do was fix my hair and makeup and bring a couple of outfits to use. Maybe some bright colors, nothing “busy,” and no black.
Whew. I figured we were in the home stretch.
I have a big closet. While I am not a “clothes horse,” I have more clothes than I can possibly “wear out,” especially since I don’t have to dress up every day for work. But when I tried them on, nothing looked right in that small area that shows up in a headshot: wrong neckline, wrong color, wrong texture, too busy, too worn out looking (me or the top, not sure which).
I sent phone pix to my daughter. Surely she would tell me I was being silly. Nope. She agreed that none of those clothes would work.
So I had to go shopping–and I hate shopping like Alexander hates lima beans. I found two tops, one was black (remember I was told not to bring black), and the other was so-so. But I quickly sent pix to my daughter from the fitting room, and she gave me a thumbs up for those two.
At home the new tops looked horrible on me without something at the neck. I found some necklaces which would work with both, but nothing seemed quite right. And I was still bringing the black top.
In a stack of clothes I was getting rid of, I found an old knobby cream sweater that looked perfect and wondered why I hadn’t tried that first. But when I put it on the turtleneck was so thick and tight it looked as if it were squeezing my neck and causing my head to pop out of the opening.
It was twenty minutes to my 1PM appointment by the time I was finished getting ready. My hair turned out good for once (yay, something positive!) and the makeup was kind of “meh.” But the clothes were freaking me out. At the last second I grabbed a couple of bright print sweaters and a soft scarf that is so blah it goes with everything and ran out the door.
Twenty minutes later, I pulled out my clothing and jewelry to show the photographer’s assistant and she did that thing you read about sometimes in novels: she “blanched.” I’m such a reader that when I saw her face, I thought “blanched,” but I had to look it up because I didn’t really know for sure what it meant. It means to turn pale, which is what it looks like it means if you’ve had any Romance language training. The connotation of blanched is “turn pale” + “look aghast.” That’s what I saw on Jane’s face.
Apparently, I wasn’t wrong that my clothes are dead wrong for being photographed in. I suspected that meant that I was right about my wrinkles, too.
First Jane had me try on the cream turtleneck and then just as hastily begged me to take it off and try something else. Chris didn’t believe us and made me try it on again later, but alas, the comment I was left with was, “Who would buy that sweater?” You see, by then we were friends, so anybody could say anything.
After we figured out which were the least horrible outfits (the scarf came in handy and is almost the only thing you can see in my headshot), I was asked to pose. Did you ever feel one of those hard plastic dolls that are impossible to pose or even to hug? That was me.
Not too far in to the shoot, Jane said, “What’s that rash all over your neck?!”
I had to sheepishly admit that when there is any attention on me I get that rash. I used to get it teaching. I get it when I go to the doctor. Very embarrassing. Especially when someone points it out to me.
Chris tried to set me at ease by telling me I was doing fabulous. He would put me in a pose and then tell me to turn my head to the right and I would have to move very slowly. My movements were jerky and rapid. Or he’d say to turn to the right and lean down gradually at the same time, all the while keeping my hands doing something that felt as if I were in an extreme yoga pose.
I figured out there are tricks to being a professional photographer. One trick was that he showed me how I looked in the first photo right on the camera, but it was so small I couldn’t see the wrinkles and jowls and all that. So that false image of myself cheered me up so that I could relax a little more for the posing.
After two hours of this posing stuff, I have to admit I never got good at it. But eventually it was over and Chris buckled on his leather chaps and took off on his motorcycle while I stumbled to my car, dazed by stress overload.
Another trick that photographers use on somebody like me is that when they email you the proofs link, they call and in a panicked voice say, “Don’t worry about how they look! We ALWAYS do re-touches.”
So, yes, Chris used a little eraser to tone down the ravages of real life on my face because, I have to admit, I couldn’t bear to handle the whole truth.
Proud of my new photo which looks like me with droopy eyes and all, but with softened wrinkles and jowl, I sent it to my mother.
You know what she said?! “Is that what you’re doing instead of cosmetic surgery?” Hahaha, Mom.
My mother is having surgery this month to fix her droopy eyes. But I am sticking with mine. Cosmetic surgery sounds even scarier than getting my headshot taken.
This is the new headshot and I first used it for my interview on the blog of The Missouri Review.
Usually only “somebodies” are interviewed. But The Missouri Review isn’t confined by pedestrian boundaries . Although they are a well-respected and long-running literary magazine, they have a cutting edge attitude. For instance, did you know that they have an audio version of their magazine? This is what they have to say about it:
One of the many innovative ideas we’ve had in recent years was to create an audio version of our magazine. Every issue, our staff, lead by audio editor Kevin McFillen, gets an early uncorrected version of the stories, essays, and poems forthcoming in the next issue. The audio team reads the work and then selects a reader (or “performer”) from the Columbia theater community whose voice best captures the text. They get together in our recording studio, down in the basement of McReynolds Hall (it’s room 54 and, you betcha, we call it Studio 54), and then the audio file is edited for production. Each audio recording is then included in the digital version of The Missouri Review.
Alison Balaskovits, Social Media Editor of The Missouri Review was kind enough to interview me for their blog. I hope you’ll check out the interview (at least to see my new headshot 😉 by the magician Christopher Barr).
After you read it, tell me what you liked best about what you learned about me–or what broke your heart or made you irritated. Insert more smiley faces with winks.
And take a look at TMR’s digital subscription deal, especially if you plan to submit work to them:
The digital edition of our magazine is created by GTxcel. Your subscription is delivered via link to your email address, and then you, as a subscriber, has access to not only read all of the stories, poems, and essays in each issue, but hear them as well. Our art features, in particular, really pop off the screen in the digital version.
One of the best offers we have is our Submit and Subscribe: submit your unpublished work to us and get a one-year subscription to the digital version of The Missouri Review for just $20, which is over fifteen percent lower than the print subscription. It’s a great opportunity to not only send your work to us but also to get a fantastic deal on four issues of our magazine. You can Submit and Subscribe here and, if you’re still not convinced, you can check out a sample of the digital issue.