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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Geezer PSA or Why I Walk

1.  I grew up walking, in a suburb so new it was called a village.  In a time, when only one person in the family had a car, and that was the Dad, who drove it to work.  There was no need for the Mom, and certainly not for the kids to have a car.  Wherever we had to go—school, church, the drug store, to visit our friends—we walked.  Or took a bus.  Or if it was late at night, sometimes the Dad, maybe the Mom, would drive us.

All this was just one generation before not only both parents, but also every 16 year old had to have their own cars.  Suburban sprawl and car ownership co-evolved at Malthusian rates, much to the delight of both the developers and car companies.

2.  I walk because I love and live in cities, the best of which are walkable (sorry, L.A.).  Some neighborhoods I’ve lived in Chicago have virtually everything a person could want—and walk to:  libraries, movie theatres, grocery stores, fitness centers, coffeehouses, dog-groomers, parks, restaurants and pubs.

3.  I walk because I heard on NPR once—this was in the late ‘80s—how much it cost per year for automobile upkeep.  This didn’t include the cost of the car.  It was around $5,000 back then.  I had to decide if I wanted to support a car or live the life I wanted, especially professionally.  I chose the latter.

4.  I walk because I like to meet and talk to my neighbors.  I was at a community “meet and greet” recently with my new-ish friend, Mary.  She’s lived in the neighborhood for over 30 years, I, a little over two.  As people came in the door of the restaurant, and we all started schmoozing, Mary whispered to me at one point, “I think you know more people here than I do.”

5.  I walk because I like to meet and talk to strangers.  I live in a neighborhood filled with such diversity it sometimes takes my breath away:  Indians, Mexicans, Orthodox Jews, Irish, East Europeans, Africans—and of all economic classes and religious affiliation.  I feel enriched by all of it.  It’s also harder to hold onto stereotypes when you strike up a conversation with someone so different from you.

6.  I heard at a nature writing conference once that walking is the speed at which we were meant to understand the environment.  If nothing else, walking makes me realize how much we’ve crapped it up.

7.  I walk because I’m a writer, and in addition to the simple act of paying attention that walking affords, it also is a way to think about things, including my latest writing project.  Often when I’m stuck mid-way through a piece, I’ll up and take a walk. Somewhere along my route, without even necessarily focusing on it, the way to get unstuck—a transition phrase, a telling detail—will pop into my head.  Walking is like the Heimlich for writers.

8.  Finally, though I’m no scientist or evolutionary biologist, I believe human beings were designed to move, and especially to walk.  The more of that we do, the more of that we can do.

And so, the following PSA:

Friday, August 22, 2014

On the Grammar Police Blotter: The British Library

Yes, that British Library. 

Here’s how our sad tale unfolds:

Last Tuesday, while searching for information on Johnson’s Dictionary, aka, A Dictionary of the English Language, authored by the writer Samuel Johnson in 1755, I landed on the website of the British Library, the very library I’d been to whilst on my literary pilgrimage to London last November.

I’m currently writing an essay about that trip, which will include my visit to Johnson’s house, still standing, and to the very garret where the dictionary was assembled.

As I explained it to a friend, I knew Johnson's Dictionary was not the first dictionary in the history of our mother tongue, so I wanted to see how it was described that made it seem as if it were.

Hence the google search, where the link to the British Library page appeared.  I clicked on it, and as I began reading the information, I came upon such an egregious grammatical error that—I’m not kidding—it literally took my breath away. 

This particular error, Dear Reader, was made regularly by my freshmen writers in the college compositions courses I taught for way too many years.  It was an error that I tired regularly of correcting on their papers.  It was the very last error I expected to see anywhere near the British Library, including on entrance and exit signs, let alone on their damn website, on the very page dedicated to one of the heroes of the English Language.

And so, I immediately fired off the following email to the Library:

Hello there,

I can hardly believe it. I was searching for information on Johnson's Dictionary and landed on your site.  Please see the text below and link from the page I was directed to.  I have bolded the grammatical error in the first paragraph on that page.

It was a huge scholarly achievement, a more extensive and complex dictionary than any of it's predecessors - and the comparable French Dictionnarre had taken 55 years to compile and required the dedication of 40 scholars.

[I also provided the link, so that they could view the unforgiveable error for themselves.]

Here’s the Library’s response, the very next day, in two emails:

At 5:37 a.m.

Dear colleague

Thank you for your enquiry.

Our Learning department have passed this to our web content team to amend this error.

Thank you for pointing this out.


Mark Reaveley

Customer Services

Operations and Services

At 6:21 a.m.

Dear Carol

Just to let you know that this error has now been amended.


Mark Reaveley

Customer Services

Operations and Services

So bless them, especially Mark, they did hop right on it.  But, of course, I couldn’t keep this to myself, so I forwarded my original email to several friends whom I knew would take similar umbrage.

Mike wrote back: “Unbelievable! The exclamation point is justified. Fowler is dead and the world is going to hell.” And Jane sent the very brief, and so the more piteous, “Good grief.”

My favorite came from Ruth, who’d lived in London as a young girl for four years, and who also holds a masters degree in English from Cambridge University.

She decided to improve some on the Library’s two emails:

Dear Ms L,

We are mortified.  We really have egg on our faces, and had you not pointed out this error to us, we'd have looked like right wankers to the world.  

We'd like to give you a 100 pound certificate to our gift shop.  

Most humbly,
Messrs BL

ps with free shipping for your items

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Now What?": Writing Through Transitions

They’re everywhere--these transitions, and some are better than others: births and deaths; falling in love, falling out of love; finding work, losing work; getting sick, getting better.

But no matter the inevitable changes in our lives—good and bad—most of us experience them as disorienting.  Just when we thought things were pretty settled and predictable, they’re suddenly not.

And off we go again.

One of my bigger transitions occurred when I decided to leave academic teaching and take my writing show on the road.  I had not a jot of an idea what that would even look like.  To help me get a clearer image of that life, I frequently wrote about it in my journal.

In fact, I remember the day I sat in my living room—this was in 1990—and tried to visualize the journal writing workshop I’d be teaching that night, the very first, with a group of HIV positive men at a social service agency.

Yes, I’d spent several years teaching writing at the University of Illinois, and, yes, I'd used journal writing in the classroom, but this was definitely a different application of everything I'd learned and practiced with my 18 year-olds.

So I worried that I might not be up to the challenge of helping these men use personal writing to “manage” this very significant transition in their lives, to guide them in writing personally and privately about what they were thinking and feeling about all they were confronting.

I thought of that long-ago moment while reading the article below.  It’s about the latest iteration of professional coaching: retirement coaches.  The idea is that many people who leave their work on purpose—and often the homes and neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years—might be so disoriented as to benefit from personal coaching.

Among the coaching strategies mentioned in the article—regular phone meetings; filling out questionnaires; attending various workshops—nowhere is journal writing to be found.  Which is a crying shame. 

Because no matter how many meetings and questionnaires and workshops we rack up, what we’d like to have happen as we move through this transition may or may not happen.  In fact, once we begin the journey, we may not even want it to happen. 

And so journal writing.  

As we attempt to manage this very consequential part of our lives--any part of our lives, really--we can use the writing not only to record and reflect on what's happening, but especially to course correct along the way:  “Oh, hell” we write, “This isn't what I'd imagined it would be.  Now what?”

The answer to that question--no matter how much guidance we get--is really ours alone to decide.  And the best way I know to muddle through to that answer is through journal writing.

Monday, August 11, 2014


You reach a certain age and you begin thinking about your legacy:  those things you want to pass on when you, well, pass on: the money, property, treasured objects you will bequeath to your immediate families, even local communities.

Some of us also hope to leave behind our influence, certain ideas, perhaps our obsessions.  We want those generations that succeed us to care about certain things as much as we did, to carry on a crusade or cause that mattered to us.

These might be important public causes: civil rights; fair and equitable political systems; environmental improvements; equal access to education.  The list is endless; there is always much work to do in the public sphere. 

My own particular hobbyhorse is a bit more modest:  I want everyone in the world to have access to books—and of whatever kind they want to read.  I don’t want books banned or burned; I don’t want libraries underfunded or disappeared; I don’t want any kind of brick-and-mortar bookstore to go out of business.  Anywhere.

And I especially do not want that cyber-thing that has replaced many of those bookstores—Amazon—to make it harder for people to buy books from them, especially the books of authors who are the hapless victims in a dispute between Amazon and certain publishers.

And so to right that particular wrong while I still walk among you, I ask this:

Click on the following link, read this open letter, and see who signed it.  Then email Jeff Bezos (address provided in the letter).

Thank you.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Thoughts On Getting Junk Mail On the Advantages of Cremation

When my dear friend Karen died a couple years back—at 62 and from mesothelioma—I had, understandably, a range of reactions.  Among them, maybe first, was shock that she could and would order up her own death.  A resident of Oregon, with its Death with Dignity Act, she had that option.

As a writer, I’m most comfortable dealing with personal crises through words, and especially through the personal essay, a form that allows for, even encourages, us to work through our puzzlements on the page.

For I was deeply puzzled by my shock, especially as a firm believer in the dignity part of dying, in allowing people to choose how they want to end their days when their days are clearly ending. 

Such was the case with Karen, who’d fought mightily to forestall her death until she could no more.  And when that inevitable day arrived—on a Saturday in September, not long after her birthday—she wanted her vital spirit released with grace and love, without pain and discomfort, and while surrounded by family and friends.

When writing about my experience with Karen, I was inevitably led to think about my own dying, and what I thought might be a “good” death.  This wasn’t so much a morbid thought as a practical one: though in good health, I ain’t no spring chicken.  And in some sense we’re all living on borrowed time.

I knew a couple of things.  It wasn’t going to be in a hospital or nursing home or some other institution.  I’ve seen that kind of death and it simply doesn’t suit me. 

I also knew I wasn’t going to put this most important decision into someone else’s hands—no matter how loving those hands might be.  I’ve been there as well and know my own inability to let a loved one go—no matter how much the going was already set in motion.

I didn’t get much further in my musings on my own demise—though I did imagine one pretty interesting scenario:  

In some far distant future, when I’m 95-ish and getting around town on my adult tricycle, and when the aches, the pains, the leaky bodily fluids have finally overtaken my daily joy in living, I imagined myself riding slowly over to Lake Michigan on some balmy evening in the fall, when the leaves are a mix of bright orange and dark brown, when the smell of the earth turning is deeply sweet and pungent, and without much fanfare gently returning my well-lived bones to their watery source.

PLEASE NOTE:  If you have some of your own experiences that you'd like to puzzle through in writing, please consider joining the 6-week August-September online writing workshop that begins Wednesday, August 13.  Cost is $175; max registration is 6, which means more opps to have your writing read and reviewed.

Email me at for more info.