Christmas Carol Legacy

Charles Dickens at his writing desk, perhaps penning  A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens at his writing desk, perhaps penning A Christmas Carol.

Today, December 19, in 1843--170 years ago--the book, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, launched on its journey to popularity in England, and soon to the United States. The first run of 6,000 sold out by Christmas Eve. By May 1844, a seventh edition had sold out. In all, 24 editions ran in its original form. Moreover, it has never been out of print. What makes it eternal?

Timing

By the early 19th century, industrialization in England had encouraged a seriousness, even cultural somberness, and had resulted in a large population of poor people. Especially children. Dickens was a victim himself. His father was imprisoned when Dickens was a young child. At age 12, he pawned his precious collection of books, left school, and began working in a blacking factory. Even though his father was released soon thereafter, Charles was forced to stay on at the factory. He claimed to have never recovered his former happy life with his father, and the disturbing memories haunted him the rest of his life.

Scrooge in his story represents Dickens's father. Readers are brought images of the former joy and warmth Dickens knew and the unforgettable images of darkness, despair, coldness, and sadness that plagued him later. Scrooge himself is the embodiment of this winter mind-set until his cold pinched heart is restored to the joy and light of a happier, more generous time, perhaps Spring. Through this autobiographical telling, Dickens, intentionally or not, transformed Christmas celebration rituals and introduced new customs, such as Christmas trees, greeting cards, family gatherings, and festive generosity.

As an adult, Dickens toured much of the country, only to find children working in appalling conditions, uncared-for illiterate street children, and a terribly inadequate education system, such as he had known as a child. He considered writing and distributing pamphlets and making speeches to raise public awareness and activate reform. But in the end, he decided the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population about the concerns he had seen was to write a story. It worked.

Just the image we see in our dreams about Scrooge!

Just the image we see in our dreams about Scrooge!

Charitable giving in Britain skyrocketed. Robert Louis Stevenson generously shared his wealth with the poor after reading the book. Thomas Carlyle staged two huge Christmas dinners; in America, a Mr. Fairbanks in Boston closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey. According to some historians, the current Christmas rituals are largely the result of the mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol. Certainly, we can thank Dickens for the model of sharing with our society's marginalized during the Christmas season.

Timing.

Christmas Cactus

This is a Christmas cactus that looks like my grandmother's of so long ago.

This is a Christmas cactus that looks like my grandmother's of so long ago.

It sits in my older sister’s dining room, my oldest sister’s home office, and my sister-in-law’s entry way. The biggest one resides at Kansas State University’s Gardens, probably in the historic plot with a label announcing its origin. A monster, she is, so large not one of us could contain her as a whole in our homes. Instead, she was sliced and diced into “cuts” to preserve her nobility with the family.

I’m speaking of a Christmas cactus that my generation remembers hiding out in our grandmother’s washroom throughout the year until Christmas when she emerged and claimed her place of honor in the dining room's west window. A special plant carrier complete with metal pan held her beauty throughout Advent until Epiphany when the doors to the dining room were closed once again to save extra coal from being fed into the furnace. Often, she was blooming at this time of year; but sometimes not, and that caused consternation for our said grandmother. The plant’s historic reputation was one of blooming at the right time, gracing a huge Christmas Eve family dinner, and anything short of that caused ongoing conversations with furrowed brows.

As best we can figure, this plant may have been brought from Sweden by said grandmother’s mother, which makes it at least 150 years old. It’s very possible that all of Grandmother’s sisters had “cuts” from this plant flourishing in their homes when we viewed these “offshoots” as children. After Grandmother’s death, our mother cared for the heirloom plant, and upon our mother’s death, my next older sister agreed to plant sit. She is known for her green thumb, and we trusted her to do her magic with our family treasure.

She did, and behold, the time came for this sister to make a decision. She and her family would move out of their house to make room for the plant, or she would find a loving, larger home for it. That’s when Kansas State Gardens made an appearance in this story. They saved my sister’s family’s demise and agreed to honor the plant with a place in their facility. They have the root plant; family members have “chutes” from the plant that now are vying for size in the three mentioned homes just as their parent plant did.

These beautiful blossoms speak volumes when you get down close and listen carefully.

These beautiful blossoms speak volumes when you get down close and listen carefully.

Nevertheless, we love our Christmas cactus, and I hope someone in the family makes regular visitations to the grandmother of them all.

And, I’m ready to admit to this cadre of sisters that I have attained strength enough, maturation enough, and courage enough to take on a cut from one of their roots as my own. Many stories must abound about Christmas cacti, but this is mine, and I’m sticking to it.

Thanksgiving and Feves

Morganville, Kansas, performs to raise money for Feves, France, in 1948.

Morganville, Kansas, performs to raise money for Feves, France, in 1948.

Just as I warned myself, Thanksgiving turned into a writing opportunity. My family’s hometown chatter around the turkey platter focused on an upcoming celebration in my teeny-tiny hometown of Morganville, Kansas. With a population of fewer than 300, which includes all dogs, cats, and gerbils, big to-dos don’t happen often. But, the scant population is gearing up for a spectacle on December 29.

This is what happened: Sixty-some years ago, an enthuiastic Morganville Methodist minister challenged the community to think bigger than itself. He and one of Morganville’s forward-thinking matrons generated enough interest that the town adopted a small hamlet in northeastern France, called Feves. Seventy-five percent of the Feves’s community had been destroyed “by our boys during World War II” as one committee member stated. The basics of shelter, food, and clothing were nearly nonexistent. They questioned their strength to reinvent themselves and move on when Morganville said they would help.

August 27, 1948, Morganville residents blocked off downtown streets and draped foreign flags around an outdoor amphitheater. More than 2,000 people from east central Kansas gathered to support the rebuilding of Feves. A pageant, conceived, written, rehearsed, and ready for performance in fifteen days, began with the high school orchestra playing a rousing overture. Actors recreated vignettes of Morganville’s history and stole the amphitheater’s center stage while an old ex-cavalry horse provided rides for children around the city square. More than one-hundred-fifty actors and dancers presented international scenes, tributes to the new sister city, and memories of Morganville’s beginnings.

Around the perimeter, revenue was collected from bingo games, penny-pitching, the sale of forty gallons of homemade ice cream and dozens of cookies made from German, French, Swedish, and Norwegian recipes. The money, dropped into old cream cans, became milk rations for Feves’s babies. Morganville mothers placed baby clothes in one can and stout shoes for Feves’s adults in another. Community women made wooolen comforter-squares out of old pants and repaired old clothing to be sent.

“Upon receipt of your boxes,” Feves’s Catholic priest wrote, “we sounded the horn and called everyone to a party. Joy was intense. Since it was the Christmas season, we had St. Nicholas distribute candy to the children, and the mayor handed out the rest.”

Morganville’s Christmas was festive too, in honor of the Feves’s project. A First Noel Ball with evening dressess or gowns made of feed sacks to honor the poor of Feves became party costumes. People danced, put on a floor show, and read letters from Feves. During a grand march, attendees decorated a Christmas tree with dollar bills for an ongoing Feves milk fund. Letters from Feves were read. One receipient wrote, “The parcel arrived just in time. We’re two old people, living in a wooden shack. In summer, we almost suffocate. In winter, we freeze. One of our two boys died in a concentration camp as did our daughter’s husband. Please accept our sincere friendship.”

Newspapers and radio stations across the nation broadcast the story of Morganville and Feves. Elmore McKee, Yale University's first chaplain, wrote a book about the effort, The People Act. When Milton Eisenhower, brother of Dwight D. Eisenhower and one who believed in people-to-people arrangements, learned about the Morganville-Feves connection, he influenced his brother, then president, to create Sister Cities International in 1956. Morganville was the first, and to this day, is still the smallest sister city.

Feves, France, devastated by World War II destruction, welcomes aid from Morganville, Kansas, residents.

Feves, France, devastated by World War II destruction, welcomes aid from Morganville, Kansas, residents.

December 29, 2013, Morganville will host a reception for Feves’s guests, the 1948 schoolmaster’s nephew and family. Memorabilia will be on display; actors from the pageant will be in attendance. Memories will be shared and retold. I will be there, asking questions and taking notes. Thanks for Thanksgiving conversations, this may turn into an article for a children’s magazine, 

Thanksgiving

Seems like a good day to take a big long run.

Seems like a good day to take a big long run.

What a gift holiday seasons bring or give or dump on us. Take your pick of delivery methods. It seems to cause a shift from everyday mundanity to lights and shopping craziness and softened smiles. You know about all of the above if you’ve lived through very many Thanksgivings and Christmases. Then you won’t be surprised to learn what my gift is this week: an awareness of the many connections I’ve made that have enriched my writing life. Let me name a few.

My writing journey seriously began at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I gathered up a Master’s Degree between 2002 and 2004 in a limited residency program. I traveled to Montpelier and fulfilled a ten-day stay five times during the two years, working with a different mentor each semester. Upon reflection, I gleaned a valuable picture of the publishing industry and how it works. Yes, I learned a great deal about writing too, but the greatest eye-opener was industry news (and January weather in Vermont).

Fast-forward to today’s writing journey, which includes a bi-monthly two-day retreat with two Kansas children’s authors. We convene in Emporia, Council Grove, El Dorado, our homes, or cabins on lakes. We read each other’s materials and mostly talk about again, publishers and the submission saga. Being a writer in the Midwest is a lonely existence; our gatherings help.

I include in my writing journey those people about whom I’ve written. Gordon Parks has been with me since Vermont days when I first began researching his story and writing about him. I’m forever grateful that the relationship included face time with him on several occasions. I can still hear his voice and the little “click” he made with his tongue. He taught me about persistence, reaching goals, and enjoying the ride. Most of all, never giving up.

I also think of Coach Tex Winter and the lessons learned from studying his life. His trip was about persistence too, but of a different vein. He straight-lined his life through sports—mostly basketball—to a fine reputation of changing the way the game is played. I admire him for that. He’s 91 years old and still as spontaneous as ever. His smile remains.

Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr holds a special place in my writing log also. He converted a slip-shod childhood into a life of service to his country to saving President Ronald Reagan’s life the day John Hinckley decided to destroy the president. Jerry is the man you see in the famous pictures shoving Reagan into the presidential limo at the Washington, D.C. Hilton Hotel. A book called Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber describes that day as if you were there. Jerry and his wife Carolyn have since written a book, In the Secret Service, about Jerry’s life. My manuscript about Jerry is aimed at middle grade readers and describes his growing-up life and how it contributed to his Secret Service work. I’m grateful for all these subjects and the many more about whom I’ve written shorter pieces over the years.

Tonight, I’ll be joining an informal group at the local library. We call ourselves the Scribblers. Remember how I mentioned the isolation of being a writer? For that reason, I set up times and places where writers gather, talk, and commiserate about how hard it is to come up with a piece that satisfies us, the writers, (and publishers). I think I’m fair in saying that only another writer knows the solitary nature of BIC (Bottom in Chair) for hours and hours and understands the need to be around people on occasion.

Reading brings life-like companions to a writer’s life also. Think about how real characters become to us. How much we care about what happens to them. How much we crave a little surprise that makes an arm-pumping satisfying ending.

Which help make the point that no matter what we writers do, we can call it research. Whether it’s people-watching at the airport, surviving a family holiday get-together or sitting hunched up on the closet floor with a book and a flashlight, it’s research. Believe me.

What will I be doing Thanksgiving Day?  Researching more about what makes my family tick. Taking mental notes about words, gestures, and attitudes and how I've been shaped by them. And if I were traveling that day, I’d probably claim mileage as business expense.

HighLighters

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 This idea came from my good writer friend named Lori. She uses it with her college English classes, and I used it with seventh grade Writers’ Club gifted students yesterday. It worked as well as Lori predicted it might.

This is how it goes: Writers have hard copy of their stories in front of them and are given  highlighters. Instruction: Ask them to find the first mention of their main character/ narrator/ protagonist and highlight it. Continue throughout the first three pages, looking for subsequent m/c descriptions.

Step two: Choose a second color highlighter. Use it to mark words and phrases that reference the main character’s problem or conflict. Continue by finding further development of that conflict and highlighting those words or phrases.

Step three: Choose a third color highlighter. Use it to identify descriptions of the problem’s solution or resolution.

Step four: This is where the soup gets thick. Look at what remains, unhighlighted, and locate additional characters and settings and events or scenes. Determine if they are essential to understanding the main character, identifying the problem, or enhancing the solution. If not, they most likely can be cut. Wailing and groaning and doubled-over stabs of pain describe what happened when the seventh graders grasped the possibility that some of their “darlings”--words, sentences, paragraphs, or scenes--might be sacrificed in the name of a good story. Their teacher and I assured them they can copy and paste into another document to save the precious, hard-earned writing for future stories. They started breathing again. But more agony filled the room when they realized they had dealt with three pages only. They are prolific writers, overachievers really, and they didn’t relish the idea of continuing the cut.

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This is what really happened. The seventh graders, motivated as all-get-out, began their radical revision process on their own volition. They said things like, “Can I start revising now?” “Boy, do I have too much stuff.” “I don’t have as much description about my main character as I do about my secondary character.”

The beauty of this idea—thank you, Lori—is the ease with which you, the instructor, have just avoided editing eighteen stories—multiple pages—between now and the next time you meet. It really works, and I can’t wait to apply it to my own writing. 

Break over, but

Granddaughter Avery, looking so grown up.

Granddaughter Avery, looking so grown up.

Remember those grandkids mentioned last week? Well, I've individually breakfasted the three. I had a great time, and I hope they'd report the same thing. 

First was Avery. She's a middle child, as I am, and I identify with her, sandwiched between a totally-alive geek brother and an even more lively four-year-old sister. I asked her how it was to be caught in the middle. I'd have to say her answer was a writer's delight. "Well, Nanann, it's not nearly as bad as books make it out to be."

In other words, she has informally and perhaps unintentionally, done her own research about her predicament or her advantage, depending on her state of mind at the moment. She went on to say that her position as middle child meant she was left alone at times, and she liked that. In fact, she seeks out alone time, disappears now and then, and likes that others don't seem to notice. I'd say she's quite happy with her station in life. 

Second was Brynn. At four, she was initially most unhappy that she had not been the first to be treated to a grandma-induced breakfast. Also because she's four, she shed some noisy tears, rallied to be happy and delightful, and gladly became the second breakfast guest. I had planned to take Grey, fourteen, next, but Brynn insisted. I told her we would need to negotiate the change with Grey, and did she know what "negotiate" meant. "Yes, Nanann. It means to talk." 

Grey and I looked at each other. Grey said, "Not bad." I answered, "For a four-year-old." So, we negotiated, and Brynn was second; Grey, third.

Brynn had nine-grain chocolate chip pancakes, almost an oxymoron. I had nine-grain, pumpkin pancakes. Yum on both counts. Conversation was animated, energetic, and totally child. 

Grandson Grey, as tall as Nanann.

Grandson Grey, as tall as Nanann.

Third, this morning, was breakfast with Grey. I loved hearing about computer camps he attended this summer where he designed original apps and evaluated and re-designed cyber security systems. Guess where he's headed? Geek land, and he's appropriately proud of it. 

Granddaughter Brynn, cute as always.

Granddaughter Brynn, cute as always.

Additional bonus: a niece and her family who live nearby visited yesterday. She had two teenagers. Pizza, salad, and lots of catchup conversation completed a wonderful trip/break. Call it a writer's vacation, which we need on a regular basis to give our back burner projects time to cook. I can't wait to see what it is ready to hatch this time. I may have a chance to find out shortly. Tomorrow I return home, launder a few clothes, and repack for a writers' retreat  at Montreat, near Asheville, North Carolina.  My NaNoWriMo project is on the line, and I'm hoping to come home with a headful of information about writing fiction. By then, I'll be ready to hide out at a desk behind a computer. Peace and quiet. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Break

Fun with grandchildren is in my very near future (like the end of the week), and I’m sitting in Wichita’s Barnes and Noble Booksellers store nursing a pumpkin spice latte. I’ve selected books for each of the three grandbabies, with Mom’s help.

            Fourteen-year-old Grey is into “apocalyptic books where teenagers make things happen”, or so says his mother, such as Malcolm’s Gladwell’s Outliers and the Steve Jobs bio. I think he’s read (and perhaps liked) Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point also, so I’ve selected Gladwell’s new one, David and Goliath about leadership, weapons, and adversity.

            Eleven-year-old Avery is, with her friends, devouring the Hunger Games books, again according to Mom. I had in mind some classic, and Mom says she has read Anne of Green Gables, so I chose Little Women and Huckleberry Finn. If she’s read them, we’ll be back to a B&N pronto for a trade.

            Four-year-old Brynn will get a cute picture book about a little girl who refuses to respond to her name, Isabella. “My name is not Isabella.”

“Well, what is your name?” says Mom.

“I am Sally,” she answers, “the greatest, toughest, astronaut who ever was!”

This patterns continues through Sally Ride, Annie Oakley, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Mommy, and full circle back to Isabella. It’s cute, fun, and has value beyond the first words. My kind of book.

Visiting this family is such a wonderful experience of assessing kids’ reactions to their environment, relating to each other, relating to adults, and books, of course. It renews my faith in the future and provides good ongoing entertainment. I plan to take each out for a meal—just the two of us, one at a time. Since they live so far away, I want to make the most of the time. And don’t forget Mom and Dad. I’ll watch for one-on-one time with them too, but the three-kid household is normally quite wild and not conducive to quiet conversations. In fact, no way. The kids are highly social, so friends will be in and out. Revolving door.

Gotta get my grandkid fix! It’s fun and it informs any assumption that I might know how to write for those ages. They have their own voices and their own ways of taking in information and assessing their own experiences. I like to watch that happen and also know that much goes on below the surface. Hopefully, all this informs my writing in a wonderful way. I come away in a cloud of wonder about how much kids know and how little they know. I’m grateful for what they can teach me. My hope is that they will say that about me some day too.

Fun with grandchildren is in my very near future (like the end of the week), and I’m sitting in Wichita’s Barnes and Noble Booksellers store nursing a pumpkin spice latte. I’ve selected books for each of the three grandbabies, with Mom’s help.

            Fourteen-year-old Grey is into “apocalyptic books where teenagers make things happen”, or so says his mother, such as Malcolm’s Gladwell’s Outliers and the Steve Jobs bio. I think he’s read (and perhaps liked) Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point also, so I’ve selected Gladwell’s new one, David and Goliath about leadership, weapons, and adversity.

            Eleven-year-old Avery is, with her friends, devouring the Hunger Games books, again according to Mom. I had in mind some classic, and Mom says she has read Anne of Green Gables, so I chose Little Women and Huckleberry Finn. If she’s read them, we’ll be back to a B&N pronto for a trade.

            Four-year-old Brynn will get a cute picture book about a l

ittle girl who refuses to respond to her name, Isabella. “My name is not Isabella.”

“Well, what is your name?” says Mom.

“I am Sally,” she answers, “the greatest, toughest, astronaut who ever was!”

This patterns continues through Sally Ride, Annie Oakley, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Mommy, and full circle back to Isabella. It’s cute, fun, and has value beyond the first words. My kind of book.

Visiting this family is such a wonderful experience of assessing kids’ reactions to their environment, relating to each other, relating to adults, and books, of course. It renews my faith in the future and provides good ongoing entertainment. I plan to take each out for a meal—just the two of us, one at a time. Since they live so far away, I want to make the most of the time. And don’t forget Mom and Dad. I’ll watch for one-on-one time with them too, but the three-kid household is normally quite wild and not conducive to quiet conversations. In fact, no way. The kids are highly social, so friends will be in and out. Revolving door.

Gotta get my grandkid fix! It’s fun and it informs any assumption that I might know how to write for those ages. They have their own voices and their own ways of taking in information and assessing their own experiences. I like to watch that happen and also know that much goes on below the surface. Hopefully, all this informs my writing in a wonderful way. I come away in a cloud of wonder about how much kids know and how little they know. I’m grateful for what they can teach me. My hope is that they will say that about me some day too.Fun with grandchildren is in my very near future (like the end of the week), and I’m sitting in Wichita’s Barnes and Noble Booksellers store nursing a pumpkin spice latte. I’ve selected books for each of the three grandbabies, with Mom’s email help.

Fourteen-year-old Grey is into “apocalyptic books where teenagers make things happen”, or so says his mother, such as Malcolm’s Gladwell’s Outliers and the Steve Jobs bio. I think he’s read (and perhaps liked) Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point also, so I’ve selected Gladwell’s new one, David and Goliath, for him about leadership, weapons, and adversity.

Eleven-year-old Avery is, with her friends, devouring the Hunger Games books, again according to Mom. I had in mind some classics, and Mom says she has read Anne of Green Gables, so I chose Little Women and Huckleberry Finn. If she’s read them, we’ll be back to a B&N pronto for a trade.

Four-year-old Brynn will get a cute picture book about a little girl who refuses to respond to

her name, Isabella. “My name is not Isabella.”

“Well, what is your name?” says Mom.

“I am Sally,” she answers, “the greatest, toughest, astronaut who ever was!”

This patterns continues through Sally Ride, Annie Oakley, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Mommy, and folds full circle back to Isabella. It’s cute, fun, and has value beyond the first words. My kind of book.

Visiting this family is such a wonderful experience of assessing kids’ reactions to their environment, how they relate to each other, how they relate to adults, and what books appeal to them, of course. It renews my faith in the future and provides good ongoing entertainment.

I plan to take each child out for a meal—just the two of us, one at a time. Since they live so far away, I want to make the most of the time. And don’t forget Mom and Dad. I’ll watch for one-on-one time with them too, but the three-kid household is normally wild and not conducive to quiet conversations. In fact, no way. The kids are highly social; friends are in and out. Revolving door.

Gotta get my grandkid fix! It’s fun and it pokes holes in any assumption that I might think I know how to write for these ages. They have their own voices and their own ways of taking in information and assessing their own experiences, and we writers are challenged to appeal to the uniqueness of each age level. I like to watch that happens to each kid and also watch and listen for what goes on below the surface. Hopefully, all this informs my writing in a wonderful way. I anticipate that I'll come away in a cloud of wonder about how much kids know and how little they know. I’m grateful for what they can teach me about both. My hope is that they will say that about me some day.

 

Duffy in Des Moines

This could easily be my desk--covered with miscellaneous everything, light coming in from the right, and a candle on the left. Writers can be neat and orderly too, or like me, some of both. 

This could easily be my desk--covered with miscellaneous everything, light coming in from the right, and a candle on the left. Writers can be neat and orderly too, or like me, some of both. 

Duffy weathered a writers’ conference in Des Moines last week—sort of. The first few pages of her story were critiqued by the Vice President/Senior Editor of Delacorte, which is an imprint of Random House Publishing. She had some favorable things to say about Duffy's story: good descriptions and character development, and then she listed what is not working. For one thing, I have assigned Duffy an age of 13 with a sister, Mandy, who is 16. As I said earlier, their relationship formerly worked well—lots of sharing and fun times together, but not so much any more. Then I have Mandy getting pregnant, and their relationship goes awry. The VP/critique person said the pregnancy event is too loaded an issue for middle grade readers. I do agree, which leads to major questions. Do I replace the pregnancy with another event that scrambles the family, or do I change my intended audience to young adult readers? Other issues were mentioned, but making a decision about my audience seems the highest priority before proceeding any further. Choosing middle grade or young adult will inform the language that I use, the pacing, the length of sentences as well as the age-matching thoughts and events. And, writing to a young adult audience would invite me to use 16-year-old Mandy as the main character/narrator. Much to think about.

I will need a new crisis that first draws the family apart and then unites them in its resolution. Duffy’s father loses his job. I may be able to increase the seriousness of this family issue when they realize they can’t continue paying mortgage and car payments. “Will we have to move?” “Will we be homeless?” “Will I have to go live with someone else?” are questions that could preoccupy Duffy’s thinking.

And I have an idea about how Duffy could contribute to the resolution of that problem in a significant way. I want to pursue that train of thought in the next few days, because Duffy is going to Montreat, North Carolina, Veterans’ Day weekend for another round of critiques at a writers’ retreat. I hope to move her story along another few steps and learn more about the strategy behind fiction writing.

The switch from nonfiction to fiction via the Duffy story has been freeing. (I said that in an earlier blog when I shared about the July internet challenge, so it must be making an impression on me.) What fun to make up words and actions and events and not be confined to facts only. I’ve always said I couldn’t make up anything more interesting than typical human behavior, and I’m still convinced of that, but I am having fun making up Duffy’s life and that of her family.  

To move on and be ready for NC, I will be forming a new outline for the story and will soon create a synopsis to take with me. Not too many characters, a plot that builds to a fever pitch, and a satisfying ending. Sound simple? I wish. Maybe the ten years that I have been writing have made me a little wiser. I’ve decided to find the help I need right away. Hopefully I’ll avoid forming bad habits from the get-go. Which proves what I’ve decided about writing in general: there’s never a dull moment, and if the moment looks like it could become dull, write something else, like fiction.

First Forward Football Pass

It’s close to the 11th hour for creating a blog and have it ready to launch tomorrow. When that happens, I go to something up close and nearby. Today, that will be the 2013 induction ceremony at the Kansas State Sports Hall of Fame in Wichita that took place last night. (My husband is a former inductee and currently chairman of the board. I have an “in”.)

I think I can make last night’s event work as a blog by pulling up a few really good stories that will be added to the 219 athletes who’ve previously been received into the Hall. These are all athletes, coaches, or contributors who have a direct connection to Kansas—either raised in Kansas or performed their feats within the state.

Let me start with Martin Gramatica, a kicker who played football at Kansas State University under Coach Bill Snyder. He was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and didn’t play football until his senior year in high school before coming to KSU. Picture this: It’s near the end of the first half of a 1998 KSU game against Northern Illinois. Martin trots to the field and smacks a 65-yard record field goal, the only one in NCAA history without the use of a kicking tee. Sixty-five yards. Imagine that. More than one-half the distance of an entire football field in one kick. He went on to play professional football with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for ten seasons and wracked up a career kicking extra points for an astounding percentage of 99.1%. Wouldn’t that be a fun story to write? Think about the photographs or illustrations!

Martin Gramatica, record 65-yard field-goal kicker for KSU in 1998.  

Martin Gramatica, record 65-yard field-goal kicker for KSU in 1998.  

Then there was Chuck Broyles from a mysterious place in Kansas called Mulberry, where he played eight-man football. He made a mark for himself playing football at Pittsburg State when he signed on as a student assistant, assistant, and head coach at a couple of high schools before he returned to Pitt State and duplicated the same career track. He loves the game and likes to win, but his real fun was with his players as they did their best on the field. What impressed me was his Pitt State coaching record: 198-47-2 for a .826 winning percentage. He retired with the best win record at Pitt State and in his college division. He had fun.

Chuck Broyles, career college football coach with a 198-47-2 (.826) winning percentage. 

Chuck Broyles, career college football coach with a 198-47-2 (.826) winning percentage. 

I’ll finish with an outstanding basketball player who was raised in Clay Center, Kansas, a few miles from my hometown. Her outstanding athleticism became obvious in high school where she earned eleven varsity letters in volleyball, track, and basketball. Named All-State basketball player during her sophomore, junior, and senior years is only the beginning of her honors. She captured the 4B state high jump title as a senior in 2000 with a leap of 5’- 6”. While at KSU, she scored a record 2,241 points and snatched 995 rebounds. Following her stellar career at Kansas State, she played seven seasons with Women’s National Basketball teams—the Minnesota Lynx, the Tulsa Shock, and the Phoenix Mercury before playing multiple seasons in several European countries. Her number three uniform was retired by Kansas State following her last game at the school in 2004. Nicole Ohlde is her name, and yes, she’s tall.

Nicole Ohlde, new inductee into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. You should have seen the little girls flock around her to have their picture taken with her. 

Nicole Ohlde, new inductee into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. You should have seen the little girls flock around her to have their picture taken with her. 

Highlighting three athlete’s or coach’s stories seems enough, but I want to resurrect one more most interesting KSHOF record before closing out. Art Schabinger from Sabetha, Kansas, one of six who conceived and organized the National Association of Basketball Coaches, wrote its constitution and bylaws, and organized and conducted the Olympic Basketball Tournament in 1936 when the first U.S. Olympic Team was chosen, did something even more noteworthy (to me at least). At the College of Emporia in 1910, he is credited with throwing the first forward pass in college football history for a 17-0 victory over Washburn. Does this mean that no one had thought to throw the football forward? My patient husband says, “Not necessarily, but the game was primarily run on the ground before Schabinger introduced the passing game.”

            Point of this treatise? (1) To share some interesting stories and (2) issue a warning to watch out for Kansans.

 

Celebrate Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks with one of his favorite work tools and play things. His creative work with a camera permanently changed photo-journalism

Gordon Parks with one of his favorite work tools and play things. His creative work with a camera permanently changed photo-journalism

The Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity at Fort Scott Community College hosts this week, for the tenth time, a three-day commemoration of Gordon’s life and his many successes. Gordon himself attended the first celebration in 2003, at age 91. Dapper, enthusiastic, with hugs all around, he charmed all who joined the festivities, including Governor Kathleen Sibelius. It was a fine, memorable time.

The grand opening of the Gordon Parks Museum headlines this week’s events, and Jill Warford, director, promises a good time with interactive media, re-created portions of Gordon’s home, and hundreds of photographs to hold viewers’ attention. I’m doing presentations for Fort Scott fourth graders and fifth graders Thursday to kick off the week. Senator Nancy Kassebaum will be present to accept the annual Choice of Weapons award for her significant contributions to human rights, health care, and the creation of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Kansas Flint Hills.

I had started writing about Gordon in 2003 and requested a personal interview with him in August. He called immediately and invited my husband and me to visit in his prestigious New York City UN Plaza apartment. We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with Gordon. Unforgettable. Books, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and awards filled every nook and cranny of his home. He cooked pasta for us, played the piano; we ate up his hospitality. As he described himself, “I’ve never given up my Kansas ways. I walk like a Kansan, and I talk like a Kansan. I have no reason to discredit my heritage.”

Gordon’s early childhood years in Fort Scott could be described as a study in opposites. His family was poor, but he didn’t know it. Papa kept a big garden and worked in a broom factory, while Momma served as a domestic for the town physician. They had enough to eat and clothes to wear—barely on both counts—and more than enough love and care to make up the difference. Gordon was dearly loved by both his parents and carefully nurtured by his fourteen older siblings, in contrast to Fort Scott’s response to Blacks, with separate schools, churches, and rules banning their presence in downtown stores.

When Gordon was fifteen, his world collapsed. Momma died of chronic respiratory problems. She had become his cherished friend and wise advocate, the one who made sense of his disparate, painful, maddening world. Before her death, she had arranged for him to live with his older sister, Peggy, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she believed “color wouldn’t work so hard against him”. Little did Momma know that her own son-in-law would throw him out—literally—into Minnesota’s frigid, Arctic air during the bitter winter of 1927. Gordon survived by attending school during the day, working at a diner where he received one free meal a day, hanging out at Jimmie’s Pool Hall until it closed at midnight, and riding the slightly-warmer trolley until daylight when he could return to school. He soon found occasional waiter jobs at hotels and piano-playing gigs at dance halls to pay for a bed and a bit to eat. Between the biases he met at every turn and the Great Depression, he barely survived. His sister, Cora, who had moved to St. Paul with her family, helped as she could.

Gordon’s path eventually led him to the Civilian Conservation Corps, a President Franklin D. Roosevelt New Deal program, and soon to railroad jobs. He perused passengers’ left-behind magazines, mesmerized by photographs of Great Depression victims, attempting to cross the country and find a better life. He vowed that he would become a photographer who made pictures that impacted viewers as much as he was changed by the pictures in the leftover magazines. Ten years later, after continuous reading, studying, and visits to art museums, he walked into New York’s Life offices, bypassing secretaries and receptionists who never would have given a black man an appointment. Before the picture editor could throw him out, he had talked his way into a viewing of his portfolio. His career with Life spanned twenty-five years.

While with Life, he wrote features, and soon wrote his own books. During his lifetime, he published more than twenty books and made ten films. On his deathbed, he bemoaned that he didn’t have another 93 years to take more pictures, write more books, and compose more music. He truly embodied his mother’s most influential words: “If a white boy can do it, you can, too. And don’t come home with any excuses.” And that’s what we celebrate this week.

 

  Music may have been Gordon's strongest passion. He said if he had life to do over, he may have studied to be a professional pianist.

 Music may have been Gordon's strongest passion. He said if he had life to do over, he may have studied to be a professional pianist.

Gordon Parks, with his daughter Toni and a friend from Lawrence in the Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Scott where he eventually would be buried. 

Gordon Parks, with his daughter Toni and a friend from Lawrence in the Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Scott where he eventually would be buried. 

Lindsborg, Kansas

Lindsborg, that’s where I live. A small Swedish community in central Kansas. I’ve heard that visitors from Sweden often declare Lindsborg more Swedish than modern day Sweden itself. I can believe it.

One of Lindsborg’s claims to fame is their focus on art and artists. In some ways, Lindsborg is a haven for reclusive artists. There’s great respect for an artist’s creative habits and quirks, even when there’s a spotting in a downtown coffee shop. It’s okay to engage in conversation with them, even ask about their latest renderings, but don’t talk too long.

The Red Barn Studio in Lindsborg, Kansas. The home of Lester Raymer's legacy. 

The Red Barn Studio in Lindsborg, Kansas. The home of Lester Raymer's legacy. 

Two such artists who chose Lindsborg during their incubative years have left a valuable legacy that is celebrated with museums, artist workshops, and many beautiful works open to the public.

LESTER RAYMER

One is Lester Raymer, who produced his work in Lindsborg from 1945 until his death in 1991. Following a degree from the Chicago Art Institute and establishing himself as a renowned artist in Oklahoma where he lived for a time, he moved to Lindsborg after marrying Ramona Weddle, a Lindsborg native. They lived in a hotel owned by Ramona’s parents, who gave them two vacant buildings as a wedding gift—a laundry building and a barn. Raymer converted the laundry building into a home and the barn into a studio. The barn is today’s Red Barn Studio, the public view and center of his legacy.

Raymer’s artistic gift was his eye to transform ordinary things into extraordinary visions. Whether for drawings, paintings, carvings, printmaking, sculpture, pottery, or jewelry, he knew where to find what he needed to complete his project, most often among others' discarded, mundane objects. In 1960, he began making gifts for Ramona, 53 in all. They remain popular with his admirers today. At first, they were traditional items—jewelry boxes, creches—but he soon turned to making antique toys for her. A puppet was the first. Most featured moving parts, such as a carousel. The grandest might have been Noah’s ark, complete with carved animals—more than 35 pairs.

Lester Raymer's toy gift for his wife. This Noah's Ark has at least 35 pairs of hand-carved animals.

Lester Raymer's toy gift for his wife. This Noah's Ark has at least 35 pairs of hand-carved animals.

BIRGER SANDZEN

A second artist in Lindsborg’s heritage is Birger Sandzen. A gallery in his honor is a popular place for art exhibits and performances as well as an extensive display of his oil paintings, prints, and drawings.

Sandzen Art Gallery, Lindsborg, Kansas, featuring Sandzens' oils, prints, and drawings, as well as work of many other artists. Home for musical performances, as well.

Sandzen Art Gallery, Lindsborg, Kansas, featuring Sandzens' oils, prints, and drawings, as well as work of many other artists. Home for musical performances, as well.

After being raised and educated in Sweden and France, Sandzen began teaching at Bethany College in Lindsborg in 1894, where he remained for 52 years. The Smoky Hill Valley River area provided subject matter for many of his landscape paintings. He adopted a thick, textual, impasto style of painting. His work has been compared to Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. He received numerous honors and honorary doctorates during his years in Lindsborg, as well as recognition for promoting cultural relations between the United States and Sweden. The gallery on the Bethany College campus featuring his work was dedicated in 1957.

Lindsborg Middle School students presenting their personal writing at the Sandzen Art Gallery. A Sandzen oil painting provides a lovely backdrop.

Lindsborg Middle School students presenting their personal writing at the Sandzen Art Gallery. A Sandzen oil painting provides a lovely backdrop.

Becoming acquainted with either of these artists and viewing their honored works is reason enough to come to Lindsborg. But, there’s much more to share about the beauty and charm of living in this quiet, ethnic community. Look for more later.

 

Jazz Coming Up

One thing you can count on: Life is hard. And it just gets harder. So you want to find ways to climb around and find some joy—do something fun, just for you.

Playing music. That’s how the people in a book I’m working on faced life. Although their lives are different, this is what is common among them. They all use music to get through. 

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Overcoming Obstacles II

Obstacles come in all forms. Gordon Parks would agree, although he may have had a hard time identifying which of his life obstacles gave him the most trouble. Being the 15th child in the family? Being poor? Being born in white Kansas in 1912? Being born dead? 

 

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Overcoming Obstacles 1-2-3

Brick reacted to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, as most Americans did. Shock, disbelief, and resolve to go on the offensive. Brick's good friends joined the Army right away. Brick's enthusiasm for serving his country was no less than his friends', but no matter which branch of service Brick tried, they said, "No." His untreatable physical condition, known as ankylosing spondylitis, had progressed too far, and he was turned down on all fronts. 

To compensate for his disappointment--more like despair--Brick became chairman of the town's gas rationing committee. He grew a huge Victory Garden. But he still wanted t

 

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Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

I took a side trip to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art while we were in Kansas City for the Red Sox Games. Made a visit to the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibit. Nice diversion. 

One of Frida Kahlo's fifty-five self portraits. Notice the image of Rivera on her forehead, a symbol of his constant presence with her. 

One of Frida Kahlo's fifty-five self portraits. Notice the image of Rivera on her forehead, a symbol of his constant presence with her. 

Kathlo's artwork is colorful and full of emotion. Even though she had a painful life--both physically and emotionally--she left a legacy that brings people to see her art, write books about her, and be left wanting to know more. The single dark eyebrow is her iconic look and her fifty-five self-portraits make a lasting impression. "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best," she wrote in an autobiography co-written with Andrea Kettenmann. 

She not only regularly painted herself, but she also changed her birthdate from July 6, 1907, to July 7, 1910. The latter date coincided with the year of the beginning of the Mexican revolution. She wanted her birth to be associated with the starting point of modern Mexico.

Kahlo was born on the outskirts of Mexico City in a home known as The Blue House. She lived there until she died at age 47. Her life was permanently changed in 1925, at age 18. She was riding in a bus that collided with a trolley car. She spent three months recovering from broken bones throughout her body and never was pain-free for the remainder of her life. She was studying medicine at the time, but she began painting to pass the time while she recovered. Her self-portraits include symbols of her physical and psychological wounds. "I never painted dreams," she said. "I painted my own reality." 

Kahlo and Rivera in 1932, three years after their first marriage.

Kahlo and Rivera in 1932, three years after their first marriage.

Kahlo's association with Rivera began in 1927 when she sought his opinion of her work. He was impressed and became a frequent, welcomed guest at The Blue House. He encouraged her to continue painting. He saw how she was influenced by her  Mexican heritage--bright colors and dramatic symbols. Even though Rivera was twenty years older than Kahlo, they married in 1929. It was a troubled marriage, complicated by extramarital affairs for both of them. They divorced in November 1939, but remarried December 1940. They couldn't seem to live with each other or without each other. 

By 1939, the Louvre in Paris had acquired one of Kahlo's paintings. This was her single claim to fame while she was alive. Otherwise, she was known as Rivera's wife. Only toward the end of the 1970s did her style gain popularity. By then, exhibitions of her work had been shown worldwide. Even movies had been made about her life and her work, as well as books written. She continues to be followed and her work explored. In 2001, she was the first Hispanic woman to be honored with a U.S. postage stamp, and on her one-hundreth birthday--July 7, 2010--Google replaced its standard logo with a Kahlo portrait. In August of that year, the Bank of Mexico issued a new 500-peso note with Frida and one of her paintings on one side; Rivera on the reverse side. 

Rivera is best known for his large fresco works. He helped establish the Mexican Mural Movement in Mexican Art with his huge, colorful works. His art tells many stories through the murals that exist all over Mexico and from San Francisco to New York City. His style was based on large, simplified figures and bold colors with an Aztec influence.

In the meantime, Rivera joined the Mexican Communist Party. He began a huge project for the Public Education in Mexico City, consisting of one-hundred and twenty-four frescoes. He finished in 1928. Politically, he lived on the edge and eventually was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party. Some of his work for Public Education was struck down and painted over for the same reason. Kahlo lived and worked side by side with Rivera, while he received much acclaim (both positive and negative) and she, almost none. 

Walking the Nelson-Atkins gallery, looking first at Kahlo's self-portraits and then viewing Rivera's larger works took my breath away. Their expressions of pain and grief mingled viscerally with moments of beauty and joy. The trauma that happened between them was palpable, not to be missed. Color and emotion dominated the exhibit. It was a good investment of time and dollars. And an additional bonus: the Musuem Bookstore will now carry my book about Gordon Parks. Day well spent. 

Frida Kahlo's  Blue House,  Coyoacan, Mexico, is now a museum, open for tourists. 

Frida Kahlo's Blue House, Coyoacan, Mexico, is now a museum, open for tourists. 

Three Red Sox and a Fan

You may have noticed that I follow the Red Sox. Really, I ask my Red Sox Fan Husband a lot of questions. Nevertheless, we've just returned from a four-game series between the Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals. The Red Sox won only one game, but for a question-asker and a people-watcher, I had a fun time. Three of the Sox players especially interest me. 

Dustin Pedroia: 

Dustin Pedroia, a favorite Red Sox player, bounces onto the field. 

Dustin Pedroia, a favorite Red Sox player, bounces onto the field. 

Baseball's gym rat. MLB's poster boy. A leprechaun in baseball uniform taking a preparatory jump at his second base position when each pitch is released. That's our Dustin Pedroia. He's feisty, trash-talking, pit-bull-like. He's someone who will grind himself into the dust if that's what it takes to get an edge over the competition. From the first day he picked up a baseball bat and took his first swing, he's thought of nothing but winning. He'd rather play baseball than eat or sleep, and it shows. 

He was 5'2", 140-pounds as a senior in a Woodland, California, high school and named the top player in the league. But because of his size, he was ignored by most scouts. Then Arizona State gave him a chance to play. Later, Team USA took him on as shortstop in summer 2004, where he helped the Americans go 27-2. Five inches taller, he was ready to prove he was big enough to play pro ball. By 2006, he was invited to the Red Sox Major League Camp and hit a leadoff homer in Game 1 of the World Series with the Colorado Rockies in 2007. 

Pedroia has proven that the size of a player's heart is what means the most. His self-taught home-run-hack from LIttle League days in California still works. As a teammate, he's a dream. Intense, funny, and all about winning. A natural leader. And a natural family man. He left games in progress twice when wife Kelli entered the hospital to birth each of his two sons. 

David Ortiz: 

David Ortiz, known as "Big Papi", keeps things loose for the Red Sox, while he shows off his home runs in a clutch.

David Ortiz, known as "Big Papi", keeps things loose for the Red Sox, while he shows off his home runs in a clutch.

Ortiz, the current designated hitter has earned a worthy nickname "Big Papi" in the Boston Clubhouse. As a father-figure, he's done more than anyone else to exorcise the "Curse of the Bambino". Here's the story: The Red Sox won four World Series championships in the eight years Babe Ruth played on the team. In 1918, Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees. The Sox didn't win another World Series until 2007, a dry spell that became known as the "Curse of the Bambino". Ortiz, with his easy-going, friendly style and wonderful sense of humor helped pull baseball's most dysfunctional family out of the gray area and put championship rings on their fingers for the first time since Woodrow Wilson was president.

Ortiz always has been a calming influence, first with his own family in the Dominican Republic, then with his fellow players. He was picked up by the Seattle Mariners' Dominican Summer League Club ten days after his 17th birthday. His career road was rocky with setbacks and injuries, doubts and discouragements, but that's most players' histories. Six-foot-four and 240 pounds, Ortiz is fun to watch, electric swinging a bat, and a solid winner on the field. He keeps his team loose and remains the predictable practical joker in the locker room. 

Jon Lester:

Jon Lester, a solid rock pitcher for the Red Sox, knows about being tough. He's a cancer survivor. 

Jon Lester, a solid rock pitcher for the Red Sox, knows about being tough. He's a cancer survivor. 

Most noteworthy about Jon Lester is his recovery from anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a form of cancer. July 2006 he was diagnosed, underwent treatment, and was declared cancer-free in December. He rejoined the Red Sox team as pitcher in the spring of 2007, put together a plan for getting back into shape, and on July 23, climbed on the Red Sox mound to beat the Cleveland Indians. He also started and won the clinching Game 4 of the 2007 World Series against the Colorado Rockies. 

Jon, 6' 5" tall, makes an imposing image. He is known to be mentally tough and highly disciplined. He follows a rigid, consistent between-starts routine that keeps him focused and completely ready when he shows up in the pitcher rotation. He's not hard to admire. I bet his wife, Farrah, and son, Hudson, agree. They all have founded an organization called "Never Quit" to support children in their battles with cancer. 

Good weekend. Good baseball. Good memories.