Ode to the Yellow Brick Road

Reading Me:Elton John Official Autobiography has drawn me back to a time and a place, and the demise of this great rock ‘n roll album.

The time was the early 1970s. The place was the dining room of our turn-of-the-century Dutch colonial house on Carlisle Ave. That’s where the seven of us lived in a balance between goodnatured chaos and palpable friction.  In the dining room was a large table,  the hutch, the never-played piano, the sewing machine, and the record player. Our ironing board and a laundry basket of needed-to-be-folded clothes often held court there too.

I would lay on the floor and listen to my older siblings’ albums. In 1973 when Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came out, I turned 9 and had three older siblings who were 16, 15, and 13. They bought the albums that weren’t jazz or Rosemary Clooney.

I would lie close to the record player so I could move the needle over the songs I didn’t like as much rendering it impossible to fold any laundry. In my hand were the album liner notes so I could follow the lyrics, most of which were over my head because they were written by British men and not my demographic.

We – actually my oldest sister Colleen – owned both of Elton’s 1973 albums: Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Don’t Shoot Me featured

elderberry wine
Don’t Shoot Me album liner notes

Daniel and Crocodile Rock, Elderberry Wine, Blues for Baby and Me, and the best album liner notes ever created. It was a booklet with the lyrics and cool pictures of Elton and the band. The Don’t Shoot Me album cover was laid out like a movie poster. Something about the song Daniel moved my 9-year-old self in a deep way. It gave me a sense of love and loss that I hadn’t yet experienced. And in Crododile Rock when Susie went and left him for some foreign guy, I was pretty bummed.

Elton was a big deal for a while in our house. When Someone Saved My Life Tonight was released, I was one of a few 10-year-olds singing “you almost had your hooks in me, didn’t you dear, you nearly had me roped and tied..” Not all the adults were thrilled about it but I understood the meaning on only a superficial level. It was comparable to  the innuendo in some of the TV shows we watched: Love, American Style or Hollywood Squares. Just like I understood Paul Lynde was charming and funny, I knew Elton John’s songs were telling a story. I didn’t get what I wasn’t meant to get.

But back to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; it was a double album and I loved the first one. We all did. Especially my dad. My dad played songs he liked repetitively and repeatedly  tediously. It was frequently troublesome because any of his five children could be called upon at anytime to pull up the needle on the record player to restart the song. And even a good song played ad nauseam is irritating. (Ask any of us about Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder album.)

My dad eventually commandeered Yellow Brick Road. And as much as my dad loved it, my mom did not. “John, stop playing that song about the prostitute around the kids!” she lamented when Sweet Painted Lady took its turn at being overplayed.

No song pleased him more than Bennie and the Jets. B-b-b-bennie! When I hear that song and tell my kids or friends that my dad loved that song, doesn’t convey the obsession properly.

So picture this: the fateful afternoon in that dining room when Colleen, attempting to sew yet another fantastic ’70s fashion statement, clashed with the PBR-laden Bennie and the Jets maniac. He played the song so many times in a row that my sister, frustrated that her sewing puzzle wasn’t fitting, got up and removed the vinyl from the turn table and smashed it over the vacuum cleaner. Smithereens. And silence.

It was over. For that album anyway. There were still more songs for him to ruin. He hadn’t discovered Billie Joe’s Stranger yet. Or Manhattan Transfer’s Brasil. The songs are countless. And every time he overplayed a song, it was like my dad was was saying, “I’m still standing.” (Better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid.)



Book review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

bookWars leave scars. Tragedies leave scars.

Meet Oskar. Son. Grandson. Very intelligent and quirky 9-year-old boy whose dad died in the World Trade Center attack. Knowledgeable beyond his years but still reasons like a child. Devotee of Dad. Loves Mom but sometimes their grief dances collide and they have to tiptoe around each other. Goes on a discovery mission to get another piece of his dad’s life and death.

Meet Grandma. Survived WWII. Survived her lost marriage. Survived death of son. Haunted by things left unsaid. She wants to be loved and needed and Oskar fills that role. Writes her feelings prolifically.

Meet Grandpa. Survivor. Abandoner. He can’t live and doesn’t die and thinks “life is scarier than death.”  Becomes mute. Becomes the Renter. Prolific writer to his son. Selfish. Regretful.

Meet Anna. Grandma’s sister, love of Grandpa’s life. Dead since the bombing of Dresden. Alive in the turn of the century in those who loved her because all the unresolved feelings and words unsaid still haunt them.

Meet Thomas. Father of Oskar. Son of Grandma. Offspring of Grandpa. Dead. Object of everyone’s affections. Ached over. Transitional character who connects two tragedies.

There are other characters:. Mom, of course. Stan the doorman. All the people named Black in the five boroughs. New York City. Family lost in the Dresden bombings. And grief.

Grief drives this book’s plot. So many of the characters lived with secrets. And shame. And regret. This book is a stew of these emotions from all of the characters:

“She let out a laugh, and then she put her hand over her mouth, like she was angry at herself for forgetting her sadness.”

“We were quiet on the car ride home. I turned on the radio and found a station playing “Hey Jude.” It was true, I didn’t want to make it bad. I wanted to take the sad song and make it better. It’s just that I didn’t know how.”

“Why didn’t I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future.”

“Grief and loss are probably the most fearful creatures that exist. But loss shouldn’t be a fearful creature. It should be a creature of wisdom. It should teach us not to fear that tomorrow may never come, but live fully, as though the hours are melting away like seconds. Loss should teach us to cherish those we love, to never do anything that will result in regret, and to cheer on tomorrow with all of its promises of greatness. It’s easy and un-extraordinary to be frightened of life. It’s far more difficult to arm yourself with the good stuff despite all the bad and step foot into tomorrow as an everyday warrior.”

“I didn’t understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, and if you aren’t wearing heavy boots, then you need help.”

“I try not to remember the life that I didn’t want to lose but lost and have to remember”

I said, ‘I need to know how he died.’
He flipped back and pointed at, ‘Why?’
So I can stop inventing how he died. I’m always inventing.”

Grief is real. Grief will kick your butt. Death needs to be grieved so it doesn’t haunt you. It’s a stumbing block, especially when guilt is in the stew.

Grief is such a fascinating subject. The converstations and the thought processes revealed are raw and deep and reveal the characters’ emotional and spiritual state. They seem unable to get out of the cycle of grief. Unable and unwilling. Some seem unable, some seem unwilling.

Everyone handles grief differently. I would join a support group. I would write. I would cry. And I would pray.  I’m sure I would have to overcome some unhealthy obstacles but I can’t imagine letting grief ruin me. Maybe I’m naive.

This is not a book about the aftermath of September 11, 2001 or WWII. It’s a book about how to survive tragedy and how to live again. It’s brought to the reader so poignantly and unfolds in a way to tie characters to each other. It makes you think about life and death and their scars. I recommend it!

I’m Woke and Commercial-free

Waking up is hard to do.

I’m not above trying to trick myself by setting my clock ahead 10 minutes. I’m so groggy in the morning that it takes a while to sink in that I’ve been fooled.

I prefer to wake up slowly, gently, with little birdies lightly chirping in the quiet morning sunlight.

That being nearly always unattainable, I’ve been left to artificial means: alarm clocks.

In high school my mom used to wake me up, which started gently and escalated into annoyed yelling, sometimes culminating into her reaching under the blankets to pinch my toes. It was all my fault, but I still get irritated thinking about it.

On one hand, I really dislike [despise/abhor] these artificial means of waking up. On the other hand, I’m really unimpressed  [uninspired, reluctant] with morning. I don’t have a good attitude. I’m not bright, I’m not chipper. I’m not really verbal.  And I don’t really think a good day should start with torment.

I found a solution I could tolerate. For years I woke up with the radio setting instead of the alarm setting. I set the radio for the local information station.  Some intelligent, calm people would talk about news, traffic, and weather. No music. No shock jocks.

During baseball season they talk to Brewers’ personnel and game announcers on different days. Same with the Packers during football season, and same with the Bucks during basketball season. All in all, I could wake up without causing much harm to my fragile morning psyche.

But then I started waking up to the Pella lady yelling at Packers broadcaster Wayne Larrivee about windows and attractive financing. Or the Penny Mustard dolts would be broadcasting their special brand of verbal slapstick. Maybe it was one of the Milwaukee Diamond Wars fellas. Or the “creative genius” guy. Or the Glass Doctor figuring to fix my panes, if I’m so inclined. I’m unable to list all the radio pollutants out there, but they know who they are! Don’t get me started on campaign season since I live in a purple battleground state. The result: I couldn’t push the snooze button fast enough because I really can’t do anything fast at 6:30 a.m.

As the unwanted noise amped up, I had to jump ship.

As a result, I’ve found a lovely station that doesn’t ever come in and I tune my dial there with volume at medium to low. When I wake up, there’s a low murmur of static. This station doesn’t even try to tune in itself so my morning static is gentle and clear.

I don’t know the three-day forecast or how traffic is on the inbound bypass, but there’s no yelling, blaring, toe pinching, or commercials.


School Supply Shopping: Load Up on Good Memories

I’m still enticed. Every year. Late summer comes and I see them. School supplies line the School Suppliesaisles of Target, Office Depot, even Walgreen’s.

The aisles of notebooks, pens, folders, planners, backpacks, and crayons kind of get me fired up. It’s a fresh start, new beginnings, a clean slate. I haven’t been in school for a long time and my kids are in their 20s. But when I see those school supplies lined up, awaiting their new home, I tell myself, “You’ve been kind of slacking this summer, getting loosey goosey. You can do better. Buckle down!” And then I may throw a pack of Post-it Notes or new Sharpies into my cart.

I wanted to know what other people thought about school supplies. The responses were as positive as a package of pink erasers.

“Buying supplies makes you feel very productive, but no work is involved so it’s a false sense of productivity,” said A___, a 26-year old grad student.  A___ elaborated: “You get to go and buy new things, and I like to buy new things, but you need to buy them so you’re not feeling guilty.”

A__ is sporting an avocado pencil pouch, and avocado and houndstooth binders as grad school begins. Who can’t succeed with that?

21274-crayon-box-sharpenerWhen asked whether he liked school supply shopping, N__ said, “I don’t. It’s a necessary evil…like all shopping.”  Like most 21-year-old engineering students, N__is a bit of a contrarian but he did soften a bit on the subject. “Yeah, I like it,” N__ said.

Soon N__ will return to college and he’s packing some notebooks, folders, and mechanical pencils. Nothing fancy. He’ll also bring along his cigar cutter, laptop charger, and hot sauce collection. And his sarcasm.

L__ has been out of the school supply shopping business for decades but carries good memories. “It feels good,” L__ said, “I like to get organized.” L__ may have other issues like feeling his life would have more order and discipline if he wasn’t surrounded by less organized minds.

For M__, seeing the school supplies is also a positive vibe. M__, 27, said that she misses school supply shopping. She works in the healthcare field, but still has fond memories of playing store with her sister on the porch after bringing home the load of supplies. It brings back good memories.

My mind rushes back to the ’70s when my school career began. I loved summer more than most things. I resented school’s impostition on my free time. School supplies, however, were a different thing. New clothes. Yawn! It meant new knee highs and blouses for my school uniform. And I didn’t care about who my next teacher would be or who I’d sit next to in class. But school supplies were oh-la-la!

Now for me, school supply shopping surpasses any New Year’s resolution for sheer motivation to be more productive with my time, get back on a routine, get my head in the game. And it lasts longer too. Even if I don’t buy a single pencil.

Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping (or Rule 2)

12 rules

Jordan B. Peterson has captured the attention of many people like me who are yearning for some heterodoxy. Upon hearing or reading his dissidence, you’ll think it is what used to be called common sense. JBP reads a lot, thinks even more, and has written a best seller that cannot be reviewed as one book because it is so full. I’m taking a few of my favorite chapters and giving you my take. Get your hands on that book though. Or listen to his podcast. Or hear him interviewed on someone else’s podcast.


Rule 2  Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping is not 33 pages of looking in the mirror and speaking self-affirmation. That’s unless the mirror is the two biblical creation stories and a glance at the naked ape.

The chapter begins with Peterson questioning why a third of people don’t fill their prescription for medication, and why of the those who do fill it, half don’t take the medication correctly.

He notes, however, that people will fill and properly administer medication for their pets. That predicament leads this psychologist to wonder what makes people prefer their pets and how much shame must exist for that to be true. Peterson has some answers that are well thought out and researched, but hardly take you on a straight line. You might have to read paragraphs more than once but you’ll see some things make sense, especially if you believe in God.

Shame is the start of the journey through Genesis into the nature of the world. Scientific truths can only account for the past 500 years worth of viewing the world.  Man viewed the world before that as a subjective story of shared humanity.  Every drama or story contains the elements of chaos, order, and consciousness.

Chaos is the unexplored territory. It’s “all those things and siturations we neither know nor understand.” Chaos is freedom too, and freedom can bring forth all kinds of good and bad.

Order is explored territory. It’s the structure and certainty of life. But when man relies too heavily on it, “order is sometimes tyranny and stultification [tedious and routine].”

Back to the first creation story, where we are introduced to chaos and order. Chaos was the unformed world and order was spoken forth by the creator who said it was good. (Does true speech always brings order to chaos?) As the human brain developed over millennia (our minds are older than mere humanity), it represents the expressions of these two views as a hemispheric structure. Order and chaos. Right and left brain. The hemispheres in the cortex reflect the division between order and chaos. After all, every human understands that chaos, disaster, and mayhem can rear its ugly head anytime, especially when things are going very well.

Allstate embodies this in their commercials with the cocky antagonist Mayhem who envisions and brings about the worst case scenario that no one forsees – which is why you buy insurance. Mayhem is good at what he does and we can all relate to it.

“We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown.” Petersen says. “We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them.”  It’s the yin and the yang, baby!  The human condition.

That leads us to the second creation story (as both Genesis stories were combined from two different Middle Eastern sources into one account): Adam and Eve, Eden, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Who read that account and didn’t emerge with lots of questions?

Adam and Eve represent the consciousness needed in a drama, that mediating between order and chaos. Because their story begins with relative innocence and unconsciousness also known as nakedness.

The snake comes with the chaos enticing the humans with the thrill of the unknown, the adventure of a new dimension, the promise of improving their lot. or the Prior to the snake, their only danger was what order-only brings: remaining permanently stilted and immature, and having no purpose. Was that more or less dangerous than the challenge of the snake? God knew.

But what does that have to do with nakedness? Shame is the crux. Shame, self-consciousness, and self-contempt to be more precise.  However, the story unfolds to show that the human’s nakedness unsettled them to such a degree that they hid and lied. Fear was introduced. And sometimes you hate the thing you fear. They were awakened to their flaws and inadequacies – to be able to look at themselves with contempt. Enough to want to withhold prescription medication for yourself and not your dog?

Dogs, like most mammals, are predators. They kill to eat. They destroy the life of another to survive. They aren’t mean. They don’t know their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They don’t act out of malice. Humans know “how and where we can be hurt, and why. That’s as good a definition as any of self-consciousness.” according to Peterson.

Good and Evil enters the world as humans who hurt others because they now know how badly it inflicts damage. Through premeditated suffering. Through the terror we enact. Animals didn’t and can’t create the guillotine or the bomb. The rise of self-consciousness exposed humanity’s free will (chaos) and its reluctance (Adam hiding) to walk with God and embrace our divine spark to speak out the truth (order).

In order to care for ourselves properly then, we need to no longer see ourselves as fallen creatures and be able to respect ourselves again.  Living in Truth, “we might treat ourselves like people we cared for.”

Humanity suffers less from its violent impulses as it did in its barbaric past but instead is bogged down in shame and self-contempt. But Peterson teaches, “It is not virtuous to be victimized by a bully, even if that bully is yourself.”

Peterson builds up a linear argument that is challenging to summarize. But we should treat ourselves well because our well being affects those with whom we are linked. We should respect ourselves, our diving spark, our human ability to overcome and thrive. We even deserve some sympathy for being “subjugated to our mortal vulnerability, tyranny of the state, and the depredations of nature.” So we should cut ourselves some slack.

Respect and care for yourself despite being fundamentally flawed. Respect your being and its divine spark. Consider what is truly good for you. (Since a theme of this book is responsibility, what is good for you might not be what makes you “happy.”) Define who you are and articulate it. Ensure your life has meaning. Once again “walk with God in the Garden,”

Half way through this chapter when Peterson is explaining the evolution of the human brain and the intricacies of the creation stories, you might lose track of the original treatise. But he gets you there, and you feel as if you understand it better than ever before.


Spring: Are You Here for the Right Reasons?

Spring is coming again. I need to have a talk with myself. “You’re going to be disappointed. How can you stop yourself from being crushed?”

Of course I like the idea of spring and the end product. I am willing, more than willing. But I have major trust issues. I’ve been burnt or, rather, frozen by spring before.

When you live in the Upper Midwest, the beginning of March means you’ve been through three months of winter. Winters may be mild or harsh, but when they come, they stay for a while. They get a permanent parking spot. You know what to expect: short days, cold, and snow.

Spring is fickle here. I hate fickle.

I’m here for the right reasons.

Spring is kind of like The Bachelor. In case you’ve missed the past 17 years, 23 seasons and 242 episodes of the show (14 seasons of the Bachelorette with 159 episodes) because you value your time and your soul, or you clip your toenails on Monday nights, here’s how it generally goes: 30 contestants show up eager and willing to find true love and, in the case of the Bachelor, get them a husband. (The Bachelorette flips the script and lets a bunch of dudes find themselves a Mrs.)

Yes, it’s a game. Many think it’s unrealistic and cruel, which brings me back to spring.

Lots of people write flowery love stories about spring. “The day the Lord created hope was probably the same day he created spring.” Or “An optimist is the human personification of spring.” Or “Spring will come and so will happiness. Hold on. Life will get warmer.”

The sentiments are dreamy, hopeful, fawning, and bouyant.  Like falling in love.

But when it snows on April 5, you think, “Spring, I thought you felt the same way about

snow flower
Trust issues

me. You really seemed to be into me.” Then like the rejected contestants on the Bachelor you feel blindsided, embarassed. You put yourself out there and opened up – even if that is hard for you – and you feel like an idiot for it.

You had looked ahead: a pedicure and sandals, light jacket, sunlight, warmth, revival, sitting outside and smelling the lilacs, etc. You could see yourself and spring moving forward toward the ultimate conclusion.

Then the thermometer reads 34 degrees on April 25.  The newly sprouted leaves wonder if they should have taken the risk, like all those desirous husband seekers. “Can I just steal you for a minute, Spring? Was I misreading your intentions? You know, I’m here for you! I’m here for the right reasons.”

Spring courts me every year. It cozies up to me with its sunshine and warmth. The chirping birds, the buds pushing up, the longer daylight. All the promises of the future to come. Can we make it through this ordeal and come out together?

Spring breaks me heart every year because it can. It has the upper hand because I am more willing than it is.  While spring woos me and still plays patty cake with winter, every year I show up and give it my heart. I just never know how long I have to wait. But I do.


Who Let the Fairies Out?

Don’t be fooled by the very intriguing title, this post is a recipe. It’s one of my favorites: Irish Soda Bread.

(Real) Irish Soda Bread rarely comes with raisins or currants. I can’t imagine why people add caraway seeds to it. And if you’re eating Irish Soda Bread and it doesn’t have a hard, crunchy crust and full of nooks and crannies, spit it out. It’s an imposter.

I believe Irish Soda Bread was made for butter. However it would go good with a nice soup or stew too. I mean put peanut butter on it if you want. Jam or marmalade. Eat it plain, I guess, but enjoy the chew and the crunch and the simple flavor.

This recipe comes from a recipe book I got in Ireland in 1990. I’ve made it at least once a year since, usually on St. Patrick’s Day, and even when my husband went gluten free for three years.

The author is Darina Allen and if she doesn’t sound particularly Irish to you, here’s the rest of her bio: she owns the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland. There’s some good cred.

My favorite thing about this recipe besides the finished product is the one line in the

Freshly cut cross! 

directions that says, “…and cut a deep cross on it to let the fairies out.” Fairies in Ireland are not necessarily Tinkerbell or the little charming nymph who collects teeth. Fairies can be evil, vicious, and out for blood. You certainly don’t want them running amok in your bread. I mean the carbs alone might kill you.

This recipe has five ingredients. It is simple and lovely and will make your eyes smile!

White Soda Bread

  • 3 1/2 cups ap flour
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp bread soda (baking soda)
  • 1 1/2 – 2 cups buttermilk (can use sour milk
Ready for the butter!

Preheat oven to 450 degrees while making loaf. Mix well or sieve the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a floured board and kned lightly for about a minute, just enough to tidy it up. Pat the dough into a round about 1 1/2 inches deep and cut a deep cross on it to let the fairies out! Let the cuts go over the sides of the bread to make sure of this. Bake in a hot oven, 450 degrees, for 15 minutes. Turn down the oven to 400 for 25-30 minutes. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread: if it is cooked it will sound hollow.

To make scones: You can also flatten the dough into a round 1 inch deep and cut into scones. Cook for 20 minutes in the 450 degree oven.