Archive for November, 2010

Walking like an Egyptian on Bascom Hill

It’s interesting how a stroll up and down a hill can take one’s thoughts on a quick journey from Bascom Hill, to Canterbury, to rural Illinois and back again.

I taught a mini course on blogging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the past two Wednesday evenings. This took me to a building in the very heart of campus (the Education building on Bascom Hill).

UW-Madison is my alma mater and even though I now only live about 7 miles away from campus, I rarely have opportunities to stroll up Bascom Hill and walk on campus.

I felt a sense of rootedness and relief as I strolled up the hill. The past several months I’ve visited several college campuses with my oldest daughter and it was nice to be back on a campus that felt like home.

As I approached the Education building I recalled one of the English classes I took in that building 24 or so years ago. English 215. This was the class where you had to memorize the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and recite it before the class – in Middle English. “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…”

This is a rite of passage for English majors. Whenever I meet someone who also majored in English the Prologue is inevitably mentioned at some point. Quite often the other person can still recite it. I remember the time a friend drove us to Logan Airport in Boston and he recited the Prologue with much delight while navigating through rush hour traffic.

I, however, can only remember small snatches of the Prologue, which is something of a relief to me. :-)

Don’t misunderstand. If I was doing it all over again, I’d still major in English, even with the dreaded recitation of the Prologue, although this time I would choose the Creative Writing track rather than the Literature track.

This would mean a few less literature courses and a few more writing courses. To graduate college knowing how to tell a story in addition to knowing how to analyze one would be a pretty awesome thing, I think.

Anyway, back when I took that class, the Education building was stuffy and old, old, old. Creaky wood floors. Dusty staircases. It no doubt looked much like it did when it was built in 1900.

When I stepped foot inside it last Wednesday evening, I was taken aback at how thoroughly it has been remodeled.

The wood floors look new and no longer creak. There’s a huge lounge and a cafe. All the classrooms are modern with state of the art projectors and, of course, WiFi. The woodwork along the staircases is jaw-dropping and I’m so glad to see it restored in that way.

After class it was dark as I walked down Bascom Hill. The capitol building was lit up in the distance and it took me by surprise and looked spectacular. The capitol wasn’t lit up like this at night back in my day:

I then recalled how I have a photo of me and 3 other friends on Bascom Hill, taken in May 1987, and I wondered if this was the first time I had been on Bascom Hill at night since that evening 23 years ago.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln is at the top of Bascom Hill. Sitting on Abe’s lap is something of a rite of passage on campus. I’m the one in the white sweatshirt on Abe’s lap. I note with alarm that I’m wearing electric blue shorts but, hey, it was the 1980s, so I’ll cut myself some slack:

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The way the two young ladies at the foot of the statue are posing will, of course, immediately bring to mind the #1 hit song in 1986, Walk Like An Egyptian, even if you had thought you had long forgotten that song.

Many memories come to mind when looking at this photo, but perhaps the most vivid one occurred a little more than a year after this photo was taken.

Shelly, the young lady in the yellow shorts, was a bridesmaid in my wedding. She drove me and my other two bridesmaids to my wedding at a country church in rural Illinois. We had spent the night before at my grandmother’s house – one last slumber party. The next day we whizzed through the flat countryside in her blue Mercury Sable on the way to the wedding. Thanks to all our chatter we became hopelessly lost for a time.

Also, this was unfamiliar territory for me, as I had only visited this church one time before.

I selected it for the wedding because my great-great-grandfather was married in this church and served there as its pastor for the first five years of his career as a Lutheran minister.

He’s considered something of a saint in the family lore and has always been described as a quiet, gentle man who was pious and liked to read. Even though I had never met the man it seemed fitting, somehow, to be married at the same altar where he was married.

Such reflections were far from my mind as we panicked and tried to find our way to the church. Eventually we did and the first person to greet me was, of all people, the Australian boyfriend of my South African penpal. He had hitchhiked his way across part of the US to make it to the wedding. His presence was unexpected and it was fun to meet him.

A reporter from a Lutheran publication was there to take a photo of me and my grandmother and do a little write up of this “historic ceremony.”

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It’s just as well my face is hard to see in this photo, as I had been crying beforehand, due to some sentimental things my future brother-in-law told me that made me cry.

That’s my grandmother’s handwriting at the top of the article and it warms my heart to see it again. I still have the many letters we exchanged.

At any rate, as I walked down Bascom Hill last night after class, I made sure to do a little Walk Like An Egyptian move, as a nod to Abraham Lincoln’s lap, saintly great great grandfathers, forced recitations, rural weddings, and friends past and present.


“Seeing” the lagoon for the first time (Mini-Saga #12)

She walked around the lagoon with her eyes closed. The flapping wings of the geese sounded like fans. Pushing aside the willow tree branches made a noise like a gentle rain shower. The distant street sweeper was a hum from deep under the earth. “Honk, quack!” The sound of goose/duck solidarity.

Note: a mini-saga is a story told in exactly 50 words with a title no longer than 15 words.


The best kind of trouble you can get into

It’s been said a good ad/sermon/speech should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

This podcast succeeds on both counts.

It’s a sermon called “Thank You For Talking To Me: Encounters on the Street” by Rev. Victoria Weinstein, a Unitarian minister in Norwell, MA.

I’ve never met her (I follow her on Facebook and read her blog) and this is the first time I’ve heard her speak. It doesn’t matter what religion you follow (or even if you’re atheist) – I think you might find this thought-provoking as well.

I’ve told a story before about how I tried to stop my daughter from giving money to a homeless person and, fortunately, my effort failed.

I’ve almost always hesitated in giving money to a beggar. My justification for not giving them anything is based on the assumption that they will just waste the money on drink or cigarettes.

It didn’t occur to me until reflecting on Rev. Weinstein’s words that we so often feel a sense of responsibility toward a beggar we don’t know (“I don’t want to encourage his drinking!”) but don’t feel this same responsibility toward people we actually know and care about.

For example, we don’t want a homeless person to have a drink on our dime, yet we probably don’t hesitate about bringing a bottle of wine to a social gathering or family holiday dinner when we know at least one alcoholic will be in attendance.

We hesitate about handing over cash to a homeless person for fear they will spend it on something other than food or shelter, yet when we slip cash in a graduation or birthday card we don’t stop to wonder if the person will spend it frivolously.

When asked to bring a casserole to a sick neighbor we don’t tend to say, “She brought that sickness on herself, so if I bring her a casserole, it will only enable her and not teach her to take better care of herself.”

I recall back when I was in college 20+ years ago and took the train home from somewhere. The station was about 30 minutes from my home in Madison. Due to a miscommunication there was nobody at the station to pick me up.

I approached a middle aged couple at the station and asked if they were driving to Madison and, if so, could they give me a ride?

The woman looked at me and said, “Sure, as long as you don’t have any drugs in your backpack!”  I was a clean-cut looking college kid and was taken aback at being sized up so incorrectly. I wanted to say, “No, but there’s a Bible in my backpack!” but didn’t.

I managed to chat companionably with her during the ride to Madison. As I got out of the car she apologized to me for her earlier comment, which I appreciated. It’s a tiny example of how we easily become suspicious of a stranger who asks us for assistance. I’m sure I’ve done the same thing a bunch of times.

Rev. Weinstein says the best kind of trouble you can get into is getting pulled into other people’s messes and helping them out of it.

Last summer she helped a homeless beggar in DC who approached her. After treating him to lunch and encouraging him to take better care of himself, he admitted that he drank to much and was in his sorry circumstances because he was “lonely and scared.” Rev. Weinstein admitted to him that she likes interacting with beggars because she is lonely and scared too.

She realized she (and all of us) are really no different than the beggar. We just can’t admit it most of the time and refusal to give to a beggar might be more about refusal to acknowledge our real selves than it is refusal to acknowledge the beggar.

Anyway, don’t let all my blabbering detract you from listening to her podcast. It’s 20 minutes long. If time is short, begin at the 10 minute mark.


Drunken butterflies careen through pine trees. (Six Word Story #15)

That is my six word story summary of the second to last chapter of John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday.

Although it has nothing to do with the plot, which takes place in Cannery Row in Monterey Bay, California, Steinbeck takes us on a field trip to nearby Pacific Grove in this chapter. In Pacific Grove millions of butterflies gather every spring and spend a week getting sloshed on pine tree resin.

What makes this even more amusing is that Pacific Grove “is not only a dry town, but ardently dry… the fact that the visiting butterflies came to the dry oasis to get drunk seemed a little unfair, but the town solved this, first, by ignoring it, and then, by hotly denying it.”

This random butterfly scene reminded me that the second to last chapter of Cannery Row has a random chapter about a gopher. Hmmm. Do I detect a pattern here? I wondered if I had accidentally started reading Watership Down. A six word story about this gopher scene would be:

His provocative squeaks didn’t attract females. (Six Word Story #16)

I know the gopher probably symbolizes something (Doc, perhaps) and his intricate burrow might be a microcosm of Cannery Row. If I went back in time my 20-year-old English major self would probably want to write an English paper about that, but fortunately here I can be more whimsical than that and move on and talk about Fauna instead.

Fauna runs the whore house in Sweet Thursday, but it’s more like a finishing school. Like her predecessor Dora, she’s quite endearing, and gives the following advice to Suzy before a date:

1. They ain’t no way in the world to get in trouble by keeping your mouth shut. You look at every mess you ever got in and you’ll find your tongue started it.

2. Lay off opinions because you ain’t really got any.

3. There don’t hardly nobody listen, and it’s so easy! If a guy says something that prices up your interest, why, don’t hide it from him. Kind of try to wonder what he’s thinking instead of how you’re going to answer him back.

4. Don’t pretend to be something you ain’t, and don’t make like you know something you don’t, or sooner or later you’ll fall on your ass.

5. They ain’t nobody was ever insulted by a question. The nicest thing in the world you can do for anybody is let them help you.

6. Before you say something, say it first to yourself and kind of dust it off.

7. Don’t never start a fight, and if one starts, let it get going good before you jump in.

8. Talk about them. If you see something nice or good or pretty, tell them. Don’t make it a fake though.

9. Thing people like most in the world is to give you something and have you like it and need it.

Fauna turned whores into proper ladies. (Six Word Story #17)


The Bach Cello Suites finally have some competition!

Any woman who spends her 20s dabbling in computer software and moonlighting as a cello player for rock bands is someone I’m going to be instantly taken with and want to know more about.

And when I hear her music, like that in the below video? Then I immediately become a fan and put it on my playlist of music to listen to obsessively while writing.

The cellist in question is Zoe Keating. According to her website, she is “a one-woman orchestra. She uses a cello and a foot-controlled laptop to record layer upon layer of cello, to create lush, beautiful and otherworldy music.”

Observe (and listen):

Her “Into the Trees” album debuted at #7 on the classical charts this summer, even though she had no marketing or publicity. She has sold 35,000 CDs on her own and you can buy her CDs and MP3s on her site using PayPal. As a scrappy entrepreneur myself, I think all this is very cool too.

You can even listen to five songs from the album on her website.

It’s nice to have some new cello music to add to my cello playlist, which until now consisted entirely of the Bach Cello Suites and a few Jacquelie du Pre pieces (this du Pre piece is my favorite but I can’t listen to it too often because I find it so deeply moving – cello music is often like that).

I took cello lessons several years ago with the hope of learning to play a few of the suites (yeah, I was probably a bit delusional). Then I became pregnant with child #3 and set that all aside.

I happened to be listening to the Bach Cello Suites (as performed by Yo-Yo Ma) when she was born. The most difficult part of the labor occurred during the 5th suite, which is the most intense and most somber suite. She was born during the 6th suite, which is the most joyful of the suites.

Although nothing will ever quite equal, and certainly never surpass, the Bach Cello Suites, it’s wonderful to have a new cellist on the scene.