Cokie Roberts, Eat Your Heart Out

The recent passing of Cokie Roberts brought to mind a piece that I had written from an actual conversation my former husband and I had in 1996.

            Sometime during the first half of 1996, journalist Cokie Roberts reported that she and her husband Steve would write a series of columns based on their dinner conversations. They have written a syndicated column together for several years, but not in any newspapers to which I had access. I am not aware if their topics are actually from their dinner conversations. At the time, I thought the proposal seemed a bit odd, but dinner conversations can be interesting, some even worthy of taking notes.

            My former husband Arthur and I had the conversation related below in June 1996. He was the cook in the family from 1971 until the end of our marriage in 2006. He was good. I looked forward to most of his meals, and I’m sure many readers remember disappointment in varying degrees, when what they were anticipating on a given evening, did not appear on the table.

            Sometimes unusual circumstances can dictate what one ends up eating.

            When I saw the package of chicken legs on the baking tray with a matchbox, metal tongs and seasonings, I asked Arthur, “Why aren’t we having cold cuts for dinner tonight?”

            I liked cold cuts. Baby sweet pickles, giant green olives, black olives, pickled herring, marinated artichoke hearts, various bite-size cheese cubes were usually part of a delectable relish tray accompanying make-your-own cold sandwiches.

            “The supermarket didn’t have the right kind of brie cheese,” Arthur replied, “so we’re having barbecued chicken legs.”

            “Because they didn’t have the right kind of brie, we’re having barbecued chicken?” I asked.

            “That’s right. I was going to have cold cuts with brie and black olives.”

            “We’re not going to have cold sandwiches because we don’t have brie? How come we can’t have cold sandwiches without brie?”

            “Well, you asked me what I was going to barbecue, so I thought you wanted me to barbeque something.”

            “I only said that because I know how much you love to barbeque and I assumed you were going to barbeque. I thought you already knew that anytime there’s a choice between having a cold-cut dinner or something barbecued, I’ll take the cold stuff.”

            “They didn’t have the right kind of brie, anyway,” he said with a shrug.

            “I can have cold sandwiches without brie.”

            “Well, I need the brie container for my new bar of Lava.”

            “Oh.” (Translation: “That explains it all—not!”)

            “The gray-green slime has built up on the little brie can, and I want a new can for the new bar of Lava.”

            “So, the new bar of Lava is really the reason we’re having barbecued chicken legs?”

            “They didn’t have the right kind of brie. That’s why we’re having barbecued chicken legs.”

            “It is possible to have a cold meal without brie. We could have had cold sandwiches tonight.”

            “Tomorrow night we’ll have cold sandwiches…if the other supermarket has brie in the round can for the Lava.”

            “So, Lava is dictating what we have for dinner two nights in a row?”

            “You could say that.”

            The whole discourse had been civil, and I knew enough not to press the hand that fed me.

Walking in Owasso Hills Park

The state of Minnesota has 10,000 lakes—so the license plates say. I’m a new Minnesotan, recently immigrated from Illinois, so I researched it. There are 11,842! That’s a lot of lakes compared to South Dakota where I grew up, which has 131.

            Minnesota also has bodies of water which are small and unnamed. One of those is an “unnamed wetland” in Roseville which is on the route I often take as a nature walk, which includes Owasso Hills Park.

            One mid-June day, I saw a sight so touching that I relive and retell it often.

A mother mallard was swimming with several small ducklings around her. The mother approached a thin fallen branch (about four to six inches in diameter) lying in the water. She ducked under to the other side. Then one by one, the little ducklings climbed onto the log, all in a row, and stayed there as though they were in school and had been instructed to do so. I counted ten baby ducklings!

            That scene begged for a picture; but, alas, I did not have my cellphone with me.

            Every time I walked that route, I looked for the mallard family.  The second time I spotted them, I was thrilled to see the mother mallard with ten ducklings swimming around her in Lake Owasso. I counted two or three times to make sure they were all still alive.

            As the days passed, it was harder to count the young mallards—when I saw them.

They stayed near the shore where tall grasses grow and swam in and around the

reeds.

            Other mallard families were also on the lake. I saw a mother with two ducklings swimming around, and another with four.

            Blacktop trails wind through the forested section of Owasso Hills Park. I’m delighted to spot wildlife along the way. One day a rabbit stood still as a statue until I came near; then it ran to the other side of the path into an area that camouflaged it well.

            I came upon a young deer looking directly at me and it didn’t run off until I was close, and then not far. I had my cellphone that day, and when I stopped to take the deer’s picture, I was rewarded with a nasty mosquito bite that took several days to heal.

I have also seen a doe with two young fawns.

            On the east end of the unnamed wetland, a mated pair of Canada geese introduced me to their four young goslings—by waddling away from me into the water. Only twice have I seen the family of Canada geese, but they were replaced by a large brilliant white swan. What an elegant creature with her long thin neck!

            I learned to skirt black-and-white creamy spots on the blacktop trail—especially after I noticed one that had been squished. A couple days later, there was a flock of about twenty Canada geese in a small green area near the wetland—and more black-and-white spots to avoid.

            I finished my loop east through the forest, then west down Owasso Hills Drive, where the large houses with three-car garages and manicured lawns provided a very different atmosphere. Hammers told of a new roof in progress. At first, it sounded like two houses were getting a new roof—the other a street away—until I realized the rap-rap-rap was the same, but an instant later. The echo like drumming in sound surround.                                                  

            When I started my return home, tall cottonwoods at the edge of the wetland cooled me with their shade; and, in concert with the breeze, their rustling leaves serenaded me high overhead.

             I saw dragon flies dart around the plants near the water, turtles sunning on logs, and hear frogs croaking.

            The gentle slope uphill required a few more calories to navigate. It’s unlikely that my walk would be recommended for physical fitness; but that walk was and is enjoyable, pleasing, spirit lifting, and likely recommended for the soul.

SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER

You think writing a book will make you famous. You take an early retirement option from teaching to write the children’s books you had in mind. You seize the opportunity to write five texts for picture books and three novels for intermediate-age children for a major publishing company. Your editor edits famous authors of several Caldecott and Newbery winning books. You discover in an interview that he was editor for your favorite book ever—Island of the Blue Dolphins—which won the Newbery in 1960. You are in good company!

            When you look through The Hornbook, the magazine devoted to children’s books, you see full-page ads from your company for the authors who won the major prizes! EVERY librarian in the country and beyond already knows about that author and book and has probably already purchased multiple copies!

            Yes, in your little mid-western town of 3600, you are known by many. But it’s a town where new people move into the housing development a few miles out of town, and only a few of them know you. There is no bookstore in town. The two that were there and sold some books, and often wished a personalized signature—for which you were happy to accommodate—did not have enough business to stay open.       

            Eventually, you took advantage of two venues in the area: a downtown art fair in August and at the housing development a few miles from town, a Holiday Market in early December. You could buy your books from the publishing company and sell them. You made a few hundred dollars each year.

            When you tally what you’ve made from those eight published books, you could have taught for one and a half year more and made the same money—plus added more dollars to your pension.          

            One of your picture books, first actually, did get a Boston Globe Hornbook Honor Award, and your first novel received an Honor Book Award for Youth from the State of Nebraska. It didn’t move the numbers on the royalty statements.

            When you receive your royalty statements every six months, you see a lot of places where you still owe the publisher money because the books have not sold beyond the modest advances. And, your heart breaks when you see that hundreds of your first novel, the Nebraska award novel, was sold at 30% cost. They had not given you first opportunity to buy some of those! Often the practice. And, you don’t receive royalties on books sold for less than 50%!

            You’ve completed your third novel, and your beloved editor gets cancer of the jaw; and after fifty-five years of loving his work, he regrets having to give it up. At the same time, that publishing company merges with another major publishing company. The editor who will take the beloved editor’s place has lost her post and finishes editing your book as a freelance editor. She is a sweet person and patient. This is the first time you’ve had to do minor changes and quite a few. You are granted an extension.

            You learn that the ALA conference is going to be in Chicago that summer and decide to attend. One major attempt to hobnob with the powerful group. It’s their committee which chooses the major prizes.

            You register, book a room at a major hotel downtown—that happens to have a view of Lake Michigan and is close to the venues. You drive half-way into Chicago and take a Metro train to the Loop.

            You meet up with people at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, of which you are a member, and have a scheduled two-hour watch at their booth. An 18×24 poster of the cover (One writer friend said, “Your cover has bakery window appeal.”) is hung in a prominent place. You display your books and do a bit of self-promotion—something that makes you uncomfortable. There isn’t much traffic by the booth.

            When your stint is over, you find the booth of your new merged publishing company. You are aghast at the large pile of free paperback copies of your new novel

            You introduce yourself as the author and give your editor’s name. The booth attendant says arrogantly, “She doesn’t work for this company anymore!”

            You are floored! Speechless. Your beloved editor would never have allowed an employee to be so rude to one of his authors.

            The dinner that evening introduced the winners of the ALA awards, it was not memorable. You have a pleasant time with the people at your table. There was nothing to indicate you were an author. You introduce yourself, no one was aware of your books. You are happy for the winners—and envious.

            You return to your country home near the small town. Finally, when the book is printed, you wait for your complimentary twelve copies to arrive.

             One day you drive down your lane. You are upset when you see a bag of trash that someone must have tossed there. You get out to pick it up and discover that it is your box of new books! The UPS truck couldn’t get up your lane, so the driver left it there with no notification!

            You are disillusioned. The book is beautiful, but what an inauspicious beginning.

            Skip ahead a few years. You haven’t done much serious writing, a few poems, a few essays, stories, memoir pieces for your writing group’s anthologies.

            You fall in love and move to a large metropolitan area in another state.

            You enter the county branch library, a huge beautiful new building. The first place you head is the children’s novels section. You spot your latest novel! Alas, it’s on the bottom shelf—the shelf which has the least circulation. You return to the library about every two weeks and check for your book. It is always there—on the bottom shelf!

            You check the electronic card catalogue to see if any of the other six branches have any of your books. None! This is the only book with your name on it in seven branch libraries.

            On one trip, you have the courage to pull the book from the shelf and bring it to the woman at the desk, who says she is not a librarian, but thinks it’s nice of you to sign the book. You show her your ID, so she doesn’t think you’re pulling a fast one. You sign the book with your favorite blue ink pen.

            A youngish woman walks into the area, and the woman at the desk introduces you to her. She is one of the children’s librarians. She has about a second to acknowledge your presence before she walks to a door at the far end of the large children’s picture book area and disappears.

            Your ego is not made of steel, so it may be bruised a bit.

            On your latest trip to the library, you again check the shelf for your book. It’s not there. You go to the card catalogue to see when it will be checked in and available. It does not appear anywhere! It hasn’t been sent to a borrower at another branch. It’s nowhere!

            You hurry to the far corner by the main door, where they have used books for sale. You think you may find it there. The sign says “Used Books. Price $1.00 in good condition. Twenty-five cents if not.”

            Your book was in pristine condition. (After all, no one ever checked it out.) You could rescue it for $1.00! But, it’s not there.

            You walk to the desk in the children’s library area and ask, “What does it mean if a book appears to not be in any library branch?” (You have a good idea what her answer will be.)

            (Yup.) “That means it’s been pulled from the shelf. If its circulation doesn’t warrant keeping it, it’s withdrawn.”

            “Then what happens?”

            “If it’s in bad condition, it is recycled. If it’s in good shape, it’s either put in the sale nook or sent to the Friends for their sale.”

            You may have the courage to tell her you are the author of that book.

            If you’re lucky, you may receive a sympathetic smile.

            Do you still want to be a writer?

           Selling books at the Galena Territory Holiday Market

Jo Daviess County, Pavarotti, My Xterra and Me

My Xterra

It was a balmy late September morning, not conducive for getting right to work after coffee in town with my congenial buddies.

                And so, my Xterra and I ignored the West Guilford turnoff to home and work. Feeling self-indulgent, I drove on. It was not the first time I’d given in to that temptation. Luciano Pavarotti’s voice had coaxed me past the turnoff many times. The thrill of his vibrato wrapped around me like the embrace of a new infatuation and I had no desire to cut that short. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the lyrics—it was his voice, not the words, that touched something deep inside.

                I’m certain the Xterra sensed my need. We were a recent coupling—the first ever car of my own. The Xterra responded to the light press on the gas pedal with smooth, deliberate ease and we rolled past the turnoff, glided down a knoll, then climbed the grade to the top of a ridge where the trees opened to fields below, ripe for harvest.

                CD Number Two of “The Essential Pavarotti” had advanced to the slow and reverent “Ave Maria” and accompanied us around the winding curves of the willow-lined ridge.

                A road to the right with a sudden downhill curve beckoned and did not disappoint. I felt a tickle in the tummy, reminiscent of a slow Ferris wheel descent. The soft light of that early fall morning filtered through the yellowing leaves of birch trees along the road. A warm glow hovered above the moist verdant grass, refreshed by the previous night’s generous rain.          

                The Xterra coasted down the two-mile hill, past a charming bay-style cottage, accelerating while the crescendo of the melodious “Ave Maria” exhilarated me. Cows of various colors grazed and lazed in the lush green pastures that the road had dissected.

                Its acceleration slowed by a sudden rise, the Xterra begged a little encouragement from me to climb the hill with a sharp curve at the top. I had to be careful not to overshoot the curve when a well-kept barn appeared in mid-air as an optical illusion before the rest of the landscape unfolded and put the barn in perspective near a low bluff that fell to a slow-flowing stream below.

                At the intersection with a main road, I hesitated at the yield, appreciated the lay of the farm ahead in the distance, wondered how the young daughter of the farm’s late mistress was coping and tending the extensive flower gardens of her mother.

                “The Essential Pavarotti” moved from the final sustained notes of “Ave Maria” to the snappy pace of “La Serenata” and the Xterra and I took off on a roller coaster ride down an abrupt hill where the sign dictated “Speed 35 mph”.

                “Ha!” we decided. “It’s thirty-five miles per hour at the top of the hill and fifty miles per hour at the bottom where there is no sign.” At the top of the next rise, we were right on cue with the crescendo of “O serenata, vola. O serenata, vola.”

                Now came one of my favorite parts on this procrastination loop—gentle curves and hills along another ridge heading back home. “Panis Angelicus” was playing. The orchestral prelude was soft, tender, prolonged; then Pavarotti sang slow and sensuous phrases with expressive virtuosity from pianissimo to fortissimo. The tenderness, the rhythm, the nuances of Pavarotti’s mastery of the music were a metaphor of love and I was mesmerized.

                Reluctantly, I had let go with the slow and decreasing “Pauper, servus, et humilis” which was repeated once more like the unwrapping of a shawl no longer needed. “Pauper, servus, et humilis”.

                We headed up the long grade, my Xterra and I, to the highest mound in the area, accompanied by the energetic strains of “Mamma!”—obviously not the “mama” that refers to “mother.” Rounding the curve of Whitmore Mound, then up a steep lane, the Xterra and I came to a stop in front of my door as Pavarotti finished, “Mamma…mai…piu!”

                The sun was twenty minutes higher. Before I entered my house, I turned and surveyed the illuminated landscape: farms with red barns and silos, more green pastures with cattle, cornfields, soybean fields, hardwood groves, hills, hollows, winding roads, and a charming Victorian town with several church steeples gleamed in the sun.

Galena from Grant Park
Galena, Illinois

Welcome to my first blog.

 I’m tech challenged, so it’s taken a while to muster the courage to start this blog. In fact, I think something may have been posted, because there are messages that indicate something’s out there.

            Who am I? I’m a new Minnesotan as of 2018. I lived in Galena, Illinois, from 1971 until last year. I was a fourth-grade teacher, part-time essay and speech teacher for a community college, and a free-lance writer. I published texts for five picture books by my husband, Arthur Geisert, and wrote three fictionalized novels about growing up in South Dakota published by Houghton Mifflin, later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The publications were from 1995 to 2009.

            Arthur Geisert and I divorced in 2006. We have one grown son, Noah, in Denton, Texas. I was single until July 28, 2018, when I married a South Dakota high school sweetheart, Harold Way. We were married at Centennial United Methodist Church in Roseville, Minnesota, where we reside.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

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