I am ashamed to admit it, but I have yet to fully read one of Anne-Marie Oomen’s memoirs or books of poetry, even though I own two of her books (signed) and have attended a couple of her writing sessions (one for teachers and other, this past spring, open to the general public), as well as a reading from her latest book, As Long As I Know You: The Mom Book. I’ve only read and heard snippets of her work … so far.
What I’ve read and heard thus far is wonderful, and knowing the topics/subjects/genre included in many of her books, I know that I will love them. How could I not purchase a book titled Love, Sex, and 4-H? Then there is As Long As I Know You: The Mom Book. I can’t wait to read it. The passages that she read during her author event, along with the anecdotes she shared about herself, her mom, and writing the book, definitely left me hooked.
What I really want to discuss today is her capacity as a teacher. Just over a month prior to the shutdown orders signaling the official start of the pandemic, I had the opportunity to attend a day-long writing program aimed at teachers. Titled “Homecoming: Coming Home,” it was sponsored by the Saginaw Bay Writing Project. Anne-Marie Oomen happened to be one of the presenters that morning.
During her allotted time, she taught us the term ekphrasis – a method of using different works of art to create various forms of writing, whether poetry, personal essay, or short story. Imagine studying a painting and then creating a poem from your experience. That is ekphrasis.
After explaining the process and providing us with examples of her own work, Anne-Marie Oomen had us create our own art inspired piece. She brought with her a large collection of postcards. I chose one with a portrait of Annie Oakley on the front, “little sure-shot.” I enjoyed the experience and still have a digital copy of her presentation from that day. I left realizing that I could easily create vision boards on Pinterest to gather my thoughts and ideas for various writing projects.
As wonderful as that experience was, a few months ago I learned that Anne-Marie Oomen was to be a guest scholar at Saginaw Valley State University. During that time, she conducted a similar writing session open to the general public at the Marshall Fredericks Museum on SVSU’s campus. I am so glad that I attended. It made me look at one of my favorite museums in an entirely different light. I left with a notebook full of ideas and even a rough draft. The following evening, Anne-Marie Oomen held a reading at the Wirt Public Library in Bay City, sharing snippets from As Long As I Know You: The Mom Book. I’m so glad that I attended as I brought back so many memories of the short few months I had living with Grandma Reid before she needed more care than I could provide. It is never easy watching someone you love age and decline.
I took something away from each of Anne-Marie Oomen’s events. On top of sharing her love and knowledge of writing, she is a wonderful teacher. Better yet … she is a Michigan author willing to help aspiring writers and teachers.
“All Things Must Pass” is a documentary that covers the rise and fall of Tower Records during the second half of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st. What I love about the documentary is the fact that I experienced a lot of changes that took place in the record industry, particularly in the record stores, during those years. As a businesswoman, I loved the discussion surrounding the birth and death of Tower Records’ business model. At the end of the documentary, I left thinking what a great case study it would make.
I can just imagine the beginnings. Supposedly Tower Records started as Tower Drugs. After World War II, leading into the 1950s, Tower Drugs began carrying 45s in an effort to tempt their teenage customers hanging out at the soda fountain. As the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of entrepreneurs who owned a pharmacy in Marshall, Michigan during this same time period, I can picture it.
In fact, my maternal grandparents met at Peck’s Drugstore in Marshall. My grandfather’s parents were partners in the business, and at the time, before graduating from high school and enlisting in the US Navy during World War II, Grandpa worked there as a soda jerk. Grandma, who attended then nearby Marshall High School, loved their lemon Cokes. I’ve visited Marshall and located the corner where Peck Drugs once stood. Marshall Junior High School, once Marshall High School, is located right across the street. Even though my grandparents were gone by that time, I could easily envision the circumstances under which they met.
This burgeoning teenage culture in the 40s and 50s led to rock and roll and the astronomical growth of the record industry from the 40s through the end of the century. I happen to be just old enough to have witnessed the heights of the 1980s, the changes experienced all throughout the 1990s, and the chaos that followed in the first decade of the 21st century.
I lived it. Madonna and Michael Jackson’s reign as Queen and King of pop were a huge part of my childhood, as were Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Wilson Phillips, Paula Abdoul, and so many others. As grunge exploded in the 1990s, the music industry fractured in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death and the advent of the internet. The music industry wasn’t nearly as tightly controlled as it once was and formats were changing yet again.
As a teenager, I understood the frustration. During the early part of my childhood, vinyl and cassette tapes dominated. Before long, CDs took over. WIth each new format, some felt the need to repurchase their music collection yet again. However, by the late 90s, people had had enough. During that time, I remember the anger that the equivalent of the 45 didn’t really exist in the CD format. You might be able to purchase singles, but they were never the hit songs. In essence, the record industry reached a point where they were pricing teenagers out of the market. Full CD albums during that time period usually ranged from $15-$20, depending on the artist and popularity. Today, I spend $8.99 a month for Amazon Music, which includes electronic access to whatever is available via Amazon Music – i.e. pretty much anything and everything.
The sad thing is that rural teenagers in the 90s, like me, mostly had access to the big box music retailers of the time, such as the behemoth Tower Records – or the CD clubs of the era, Columbia House and BMG Music. Oh, how I wished there were used record stores near me! When I arrived on campus at Michigan State in 1999, my friends and I made regular visits to The Wazoo, a mom and pop used record/CD store run by an old hippie who truly loved music, or WhereHouse Records, another great used music store. We could get an entire pile of albums for the price of one new release.
This atmosphere and the business model became a recipe for disaster. Enter the file sharing frenzy that took place in the early aughts. Napster and Limewire were king at this time. Why purchase music at all when you could download your favorite songs for free from a friend of a friend of a friend? While it wasn’t that simple – mislabeling ran rampant and download times could be excessive – it worked well enough. If anyone had actually been prosecuted for downloading music illegally, our judicial justice system would have quickly collapsed. Colleges, universities, and even many high schools would have been empty with students rotting in jail instead of receiving an education. That may be hyperbole, but not by much.
In the end, it could not last. Businesses such as Tower Records, so heavily dependent upon real estate and inventory, could not survive once people refused to repurchase their music collection yet again, pay full price for CD albums with only a handful of well-known songs (if lucky), downloaded whatever pirated music they wished via Napster and LimeWire. The electronic music market, now dominated by Amazon and Spotify, had not yet come into its own. Today, Tower Records lives on in Japan, a testament to its homegrown slogan – “No Music. No Life.”
“All Things Must Pass” is entertaining if you are interested in music and the history of the music business at all. It brought back a lot of memories for me, and frankly, I feel for teens today who do not have the experience of spending time in stores dedicated solely to music. Creating a Spotify or Amazon Music playlist just isn’t the same. The title “All Things Must Pass” comes from the sign a former Tower Records employee put on their sign as their original store was closing. “All Things Must Pass … Thanks Sacramento.” It is, of course, also the name of George Harrison’s triple solo album and hit, “All Things Must Pass.”
On Friday evening March 31st, 2023, I joined scores of others to attend “Madonna 40” at the Delta College Planetarium. A sold out show, it was incredible – and a lot of fun! Designed to honor Madonna’s 40th anniversary of her first hit single “Holiday” and her always controversial place in Bay City history, it did not disappoint. My only wish: I would have thoroughly enjoyed another hour of her classic music videos and would have gladly paid accordingly. There is nothing quite like watching the music videos that made Madonna a superstar and an inspiration to a generation of girls and women, for better or worse, on the big screen. It is an experience I will never forget. Her early music will always be a part of the soundtrack to my early childhood memories. In designing the program, the following original, unedited music videos were shown in all of their ‘80s and early ‘90s glory:
Frankly, the music video portion of the program outshone everything else. The videos have held up over nearly four decades. What struck me most in the vintage videos was Madonna herself. Definitely not model thin or “fat,” she exuded old-school glamor in “Material Girl,” “Vogue,” and “Like A Prayer” with the dance moves that made her famous. As for “Papa Don’t Preach,” she looks like any fresh-faced midwestern high school or college girl.
Personally, I felt that the organizers/designers missed a huge opportunity by not including at least the videos for both “Promise to Try” (1989), which was largely filmed at her mother’s gravesite in Kawkawlin, Michigan (just north of Bay City), and “This Used to Be My Playground” (1992), which was included on the A League of Their Own soundtrack and supposedly written about Bay City becoming her refuge after her mother’s untimely death. The only actual footage of Madonna in or near Bay City was not included in the program. How?
The next segment of the program, “Smelly Little Town,” is originally why I wanted to attend the event and even moved around my schedule to do so. Debuting as part of the Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival in Bay City in 2021, I doubted I would ever have another opportunity to see it. Growing up with the controversy, knowing Bay City a little too well, and having been born in Bay City myself, I had to check it out.
First and foremost, it is quite possibly the most Bay City thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Let me just say this: It began and ended with scenes of people polka dancing at the St. Stan’s Polish festival to the Steve Drzewicki Band, both Bay City institutions. I half expected to see my ex’s parents go dancing on by. In general, the film did a decent job describing Bay City, covering all aspects of the “smelly little town” controversy with Madonna, and explaining how ever-corrupt Bay City small town politics is the answer as to why Bay City has never really been able to capitalize on the fact that it is the birthplace of Madonna.
For those who don’t know, Madonna Louise Ciccone was born at the former Mercy Hospital in Bay City, Michigan on August 16th, 1958. Madonna is her actual given name as she was named after her mother. Upon her mother’s tragic death in 1963, Madonna spent time in Bay City with her grandmother, who lived in the Banks area, then home to a nearby oil refinery (hence the “smelly little town” comment that caused such an uproar). To this day, there is very little commemorating Madonna in Bay City. Then again, this is the same city that passed on becoming home to a casino and a minor league ballpark, both of which went to nearby communities.
If something wonderful is planning on coming to Bay City, one can be sure that public outrage will ensue in some way, shape, or form. I am speaking from experience. When I moved back to Michigan with my ex, a Bay City native, in 2005, the controversy over the then new Wirt Public Library – a gorgeous new anchor for downtown Bay City – had yet to wane. While I agree it doesn’t have the history of the historic Sage Library in Bay City, people were genuinely upset over a beautiful new library downtown. I will never understand the mentality.
Then again, back in 2005, Michigan experienced a one-state recession which was about to turn into the Great Recession. 2008 is covered well in the documentary. It is rightfully called one of the darkest times in Bay City history, and frankly, I consider my life in Bay City (2005-2012) one of the darkest periods in my life as well. Yet, while Bay City is almost unrecognizable from that dark hour, there is still nothing formal honoring Madonna in the city.
As much as I wanted to see “Smelly Little Town,” I doubt it would have been half as entertaining if not for my own experiences with Bay City and my early love of Madonna’s music. In fact, much of it is forgettable. However, it did a good job highlighting the ridiculousness of the entire situation and Bay City politics. I actually understand the controversy now. A little explanation and context behind Madonna’s comments would have changed everything. In the same infamous 1985 interview with Jane Pauly, Madonna goes on to say that she has “great affection” for Bay City.
By the way, Bay City still is a “smelly little town.” In a hilarious coincidence, I happened to drive by the Michigan Sugar plant on Friday on my way to see “Madonna 40.” For those who don’t know, processing sugar beets can smell like hot garbage on a good day. Friday, as I drove by, it never smelled worse.
Clearly, Madonna’s relationship with Bay City remains complicated. I fully understand why. My love/hate relationship with Madonna – I will always love Madonna’s music, but question her methods of self-promotion – mirrors my love/hate relationship with Bay City itself. I do hope that she is commemorated in Bay City at some point. Not every small town can claim to be the birthplace of the best-selling female musical artist of all time.
By the way, if you want a quick, accurate outline of Madonna’s complex history with Bay City, the article below does a wonderful job of doing just that.
The overall message of The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams far outweighs anything else I can say about the book. Are the characters relatable and well-developed? Yes. I found myself cheering them on throughout the entire book. Would I say that they are the best or most important aspect of the book? No. The relationships they develop with one another are much more interesting. Above all, the role that the local library and the reading list plays in the plot and the development of the relationships between various characters is the real story.
The main protagonists, Aleisha, a young teenage girl with a troubled home life who works at the library over the summer at the suggestion of her older brother, and Mukesh, a widower who struggles to regain his sense of purpose after the loss of his wife of decades, Naina, meet at the local library. The unlikely friendship that unfolds after their first unpleasant meeting sets the stage for all that follows that fateful summer, changing both of their lives irrevocably.
Set in the quiet London Borough of Ealing, the local library serves as a focal point for the community, even if it is well-loved and in search of additional patrons. The reading list Aleisha finds, labeled “just in case you need it,” ultimately brings several people together in unexpected ways. It is this list that I find to be the most interesting aspect of the book. It is obvious that The Reading List was written by a bibliophile for bibliophiles.
The following reading list is found in the book:
In Case You Need It …
The Time Traveler’s Wife * (discussed in the book, but not included on the list)
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Kite Runner
Life of Pi
Pride and Prejudice
A Suitable Boy
From the Author …
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Katherine Heiny, Standard Deviation
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Hiromi Kawakami, Strange Weather in Tokyo
Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Attia Hosain, Sunlight on a Broken Column
Ali Smith, There But For The
Ultimately, The Reading List is about how books and libraries can bring us together. It is a great message that more people need to hear. While I don’t often hear it anymore, there are still some people who do not recognize the modern importance of libraries. Personally, I believe that they are more important than ever. I am grateful that my local libraries appear to be doing well and have a lot of local support. I can’t imagine life without them. What makes The Reading List so powerful is the demonstration of how various characters connect over books and how those connections impact their lives. The right books seem to appear at just the right time. I feel for anyone who has not had that experience. I cannot recommend The Reading List enough.
Yes. I do intend to eventually read through both lists.
As with so many writers, I fell in love with reading first. Over the years, I have found my reading life crucial to my continuing education as a writer. The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to read as widely as possible. The best part: Most of the tips, resources, and suggestions I am sharing here are little to no cost. One crucial requirement: a library card.
The following is a continuation of the list I started in Part 1. You can find it below.
I currently belong to three book clubs, and all three serve different roles in my reading life. First, as a writer, I would encourage you to join a book club similar to Mid Michigan Writers’ own Scribblers and Scholars. We meet every-other month to discuss books from the point of view of writers. Lately, we’ve been working on comparing Educated by Tara Westover to The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Scribblers and Scholars aims to provide writers with a book club focused on dissecting the craft of writing, although we tend to discuss just about anything related to the books.
I’ve also belonged to the Standish-Sterling Book Club for years. It is the first formal book club I’ve joined, and while we certainly discuss the books we picked, there is an in-person social aspect to the club that I love. In fact, two of my former teachers also belong to the club, both of whom have had a profound impact on who I am today. We meet monthly, and there is truly no judgment if you don’t quite finish a book that is less than thrilling or if you can’t make a meeting.
Last but not least, I’ve also joined the Spartan Book Club, which resides entirely online, as an alumni of Michigan State University. In fact, it has its own forum and much more. Books are selected quarterly, and once again, members are free to participate as much or as little as you’d like. I’ve met some wonderful people online and have thoroughly enjoyed the book selections. I’ve also used the Spartan Book Club for reading suggestions, as there are also several wonderful books mentioned not chosen as a book club selection.
I mention all of my book club experiences because they demonstrate that there is one out there for every type of reader. As a writer, all of my book club experiences led me to books I would not have picked up otherwise. I am a better writer for it, and it provides yet another outlet in which to discuss books. Think about what you would like out of a book club, and with a little research, you will find it.
If you haven’t discovered the benefits of ebooks yet, here are a few things I’ve noticed as a writer. First, I tend to be a collector. I intentionally collect certain books, hopefully to be read more than once. While there is nothing quite like the smell of a good book, collecting hundreds of ebooks takes up a lot less space in my home. Second, with Kindle, my preferred ereader and type of ebook, I can have my entire ebook library not only on my phone, but on my Chromebook and Kindle Paperwhite as well. Last but not least, I have a hard time highlighting or writing in traditional books. Ebooks allow me to highlight and make notes to my heart’s content without marking up a traditional book. My notes and highlights are waiting for me when I return.
Ebooks tend to be more cost effective as well. Often, the Kindle version is less expensive than either paperback or hardcover. While the prices of Kindle books are rising in some cases, there are also several websites and offers for free or low-cost Kindle books. BookBub is one of the best. I actually had to quit because I found too many great free books. It became overwhelming. Of course, libraries are increasing their access to ebooks as well. The beauty of ebooks from the library is that, not only is there no cost, you don’t need to physically visit the library or remember to return the book either.
Research and Read Book Reviews
There are countless places to find good book reviews and research book suggestions. Goodreads has everything and provides access to all kinds of reviews. Personally, I enjoy book blogs. My favorite is Modern Mrs. Darcy. She has it all: endless book lists, audiobook recommendations, her own book club, a podcast, and so much more. If you are into the reading life, you need to check it out. It might take some research, but once again, there are book blogs and review sites aimed at every type of reader. It is a matter of finding your niche.
Take a Class
I admit, pursuing my English Language Arts (ELA) endorsement in secondary education (grades 6-12) forced me to branch out as a reader. I’ve learned so much from my formal writing and literature courses. Yet, it isn’t necessary to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on tuition to take a literature class.
Two trusted, established sites I’ve used in the past are Coursera and Canvas. While I haven’t taken writing or literature courses specifically on either site, I do know that they are readily available at little or no cost. Other courses I’ve taken on those sites, mainly on educational technology, have been wonderful. On the clearinghouse site ClassCentral, a quick search under literature resulted in free survey courses offered by the likes of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania on a wide variety of subjects relating to all aspects of literature. You can find my search result here. There is also The Great Courses Video BingePass available on Hoopla that allows patrons access to the The Great Courses Video Collection for free for a week. The possibilities are endless.
Curate Your Own Lists of Books/Literature
Of course, there is always the DIY approach. Take the time to make your own lists of books and other forms of literature that interest you. I’ve made several of these lists over the years, and it helps me keep track of things that I came across years ago. I’ve found creating lists of authors and major works to be helpful. Make the list you are seeking if it doesn’t quite exist yet – and have fun.
Have you ever fallen so in love with a place that you still dream about it years later – and you fall so in love with your memories of that particular time and place that you instinctively know that reality will never come close to what you remember? It can happen. In 2002, I fell in love with Austin, Texas. In reality, I fell in love with a time and place that no longer exists.
It started out innocently enough. When I began planning my year abroad – one semester in Quito, Ecuador and another in Caceres, Spain – I knew that I would also need to make plans for the summer after Spain. I lucked out. The spring of my sophomore year at Michigan State, I landed a position as a paid intern at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota. I must have been on a roll that semester because I also landed a paid co-op opportunity (6 month contract) with Applied Materials (AMAT) in Austin, Texas. Ultimately, I accepted the position with IBM and asked Applied Materials if I could pursue the co-op opportunity the following summer/fall. They said yes, and I left East Lansing for a series of adventures that would take me away from campus for over a year and a half. I was well on my way to pursuing several of my dreams at once, including a career in tech.
My time in Austin did not start off well. When I arrived in June 2002, I didn’t know anyone. I ended up subletting my first apartment from a UT student. It was OK, but my only roommate in our four bedroom apartment spent all of her time with her boyfriend. Often the only trace of Carly was the reeking skunk smell of pot. Soon, things would change.
The first week or two at Applied consisted of orientation classes and touring facilities in what’ve been loving termed bunny suits. What I loved about AMAT was their place in the tech industry. We didn’t make the chips; we made the machines that make the chips. After a long day of orientation, an engineer I’d just met, Melissa, asked if I wanted to go get a drink and have dinner after work. Little did I know just how much she would impact my time in Austin.
Melissa and I became fast friends over dinner. Once I began describing my experiences studying abroad in Ecuador and Spain, she began telling me about her former coworker at Motorola, Andy, a fellow engineer. She thought that we should met, and frankly, I think she was trying to set us up. There was only one catch: Andy was currently exploring Machu Picchu in Peru and wouldn’t be home for some time. It would be worth the wait.
In the meantime, on July 24th, 2002, on my way to work, a huge moving truck made a left-hand turn in front of me when I had the green light. He hadn’t seen me. In the accident, I broke my big toe and the metatarsal. The molding on the driver’s side door of my car also sliced me behind my ear. If I had had a passenger, he or she probably would not have survived. In the aftermath of the accident, things somehow came together. My mom flew out to Austin to help me find a lawyer and a new car. She couldn’t believe how well I knew the city even though I had only been there just over a month. I had to help navigate in the days before Google Maps due to my cast.
By the time I had a walking cast, all bets were off. I quickly found out that the six month sublease I’d been promised was really only for three. Livid, I needed a new place to live within a few weeks. In the end, I found a much better place to live just in time thanks to Applied Material’s internal listings. The months living with Karen and her toddler son were great. It was almost as if I had the good fortune to live with a fun aunt for several months. Things were finally looking up.
In all the chaos of the accident and moving, I finally met Andy. We ended up on a blind date at the type of place that could only exist in Austin – Flipnotics. The first floor was a quirky retail t-shirt shop. The second floor included a restaurant/bar with a small performance space for live music. We were there for the music. I wish I had a video of Andy’s face when I opened my car door. He was horrified to realize that I had a walking cast up to my knee and that he had invited me to a venue requiring climbing a large set of stairs. Fortunately, we hit it off right away.
One of the best things about Austin, then and now, is the live music. It isn’t called the live music capital of the world for nothing. Andy was the perfect companion with whom to check it all out. It turns out that as a hobby Andy had a radio show – ATX Live – on the local co-op radio station KOOP. Soon I would met his friend and manager Cheryl. Andy would later serve as president of KOOP for several years. It isn’t every day that a man you admire and respect introduces you to someone who soon becomes one of your best friends. That is precisely what happened.
Over the next few months, Andy, Cheryl, and I had numerous adventures. I admit, I had a huge crush on Andy by this time. Cheryl did her best to try to get us to end up together, but it wasn’t meant to be. However, the fun I had that late summer and fall are never to be forgotten. The three of us attended the first Austin City Limits Festival in Zilker Park. Cheryl “conveniently” couldn’t join us the second day. The antics that took place that weekend are stories in themselves that belong with other songs. At the end of the festival, Andy and I ended up at a favorite local restaurant called Shady Grove. As it was within walking distance of the festival, we had to order takeout and eat/drink on the lawn, it was that crowded.
Later, Andy had LASIK surgery, and unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned. He ended up blinded for a week. As it was near his birthday, Cheryl and I threw him a party at his house once he regained his sight. I finally got to meet a bunch of his friends, coworkers, etc. It ended with Andy having to smooth things over with local cops late in the evening. Our “dress to be seen”/birthday party was a complete success.
As Halloween approached, Andy asked if I wanted to go to a house party hosted by local musician Chelle Murrey. Once we arrived, I dressed as a gypsy and Andy dressed as Zorro, Andy told me that he had a surprise for me. It turned out that a Beatles’ tribute band were going to play at the party, and knowing that I was a Beatles’ fan, he wanted me to have the opportunity to check them out first. I will never forget it. I bought Chelle’s CD that evening, and even though the music hasn’t quite held up, it will always remind me of Austin.
Shortly after one more party – this time a birthday/going home/Christmas party for me in mid-December at Karen’s house – I had to pack up my new-to-me 2002 silver Grand Prix and make the long journey home – alone. I arrived back in Michigan right before my birthday and Christmas. A year and half and a thousand adventures later, I would be returning to Michigan State in January 2003 to finish my degrees. I would graduate in May 2004. I never wanted to leave Austin behind.
On December 15th, 2002, a cold, foggy day in Austin, I left, listening to Chelle Murrey, trying to keep it all together. Austin represented everything I wanted after graduation – a good job, great friends, beautiful place to live, and for the first time in my life, a social life that actually felt like me.
My senior year at MSU, I did everything in my power to land in Austin. I made it to second round interviews with both Dell and Applied Materials. Unfortunately, my manager at AMAT left a few weeks before I did. He didn’t even get a chance to do my review before he left, that was left to someone I had only known for a week. In essence, I had no one on the inside fighting for me. Only half of the engineers and supply chain grads were hired. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them.
I did put my time back in Austin to good use, however. I met up with Andy and finally told him how I felt. In essence, he told me that he viewed me as a little sister. He explained that he was at a completely different stage in life. At 22, devastated doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. Looking back, I completely understand where he was coming from at that point. At 29 and about to finish his MBA, he already owned his own home and was established in his career. I still needed to finish undergrad.
It is funny how I should have seen it coming. He bought me a cowgirl hat at the Austin City Limits Festival because he was afraid I was going to fry otherwise. As cold weather set in, he warned me about trying to drive on ice in Texas. In essence, I may know how to drive on ice being from Michigan, but others in Texas do not. My dad would have been impressed.
Today, Andy is married and still lives in Austin, now owning his own business. I’d love to track down Cheryl. I have a feeling that if we were able to catch up after all these years, it would be as if no time had passed at all. The only person with whom I am in contact is Karen, who keeps reminding me from time to time that Austin has changed – and not for the better.
In essence, this is a love letter to the Austin I knew in 2002. Some of my favorite landmarks and haunts, namely Flipnotics and Shady Grove, no longer exist. I still follow AMAT and the semiconductor industry. How could I not after 2020? The Austin City Limits Festival has grown beyond all recognition. I can only imagine how the city has changed and evolved. I just hope that it is still as weird as I remember and remains a welcoming place for young undergrads trying to find their place in the adult world. Those memories of Austin will always be a part of me.
As with so many writers, I fell in love with reading first. Over the years, I have found my reading life crucial to my continuing education as a writer. The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to read as widely as possible. The best part: Most of the tips, resources, and suggestions I am sharing here are little to no cost. One crucial requirement: a library card.
I read Reading Like A Writer well over a decade ago, but it is one of those books that never left me. I can’t recommend it enough for any writer. Prose makes the case for reading widely and for looking carefully at the literature you love most. Ask yourself: Why do I love this particular author? Why do I keep coming back to this particular genre, series, or author? What techniques is the author employing to keep readers interested?
There are endless opportunities to learn the craft of writing by reading if we know what questions to ask. Bonus: The reading list Prose includes for writers is wonderful.
Make Use of Your Local Library and Get to Know Your Local Librarians
A library card is a no brainer. These days, I tend to use mine to discover and borrow audiobooks via the service Hoopla, as well as borrow ebooks for my Kindle. Yes, I still checkout traditional books from time to time. The advantage to ebooks, including Kindle books, and anything from Hoopla is the simple fact that it isn’t necessary to visit the library at all. It is easy to borrow them online. Once they are due to be “returned,” the borrower simply no longer has access to the book. If not quite finished, readers may be able to renew online, depending on the popularity of the book.
Over the years, librarians have been extremely helpful. As an English teacher during the COVID 19 pandemic, I was fortunate to have local dedicated librarians who were willing to Zoom with my English classes in order to teach students how to borrow books digitally. Once restrictions were lifted, those same librarians helped me prepare a “book tasting” for my classes in an effort to help students figure out what genres they might enjoy. As a patron, if you ask, a librarian will nearly always be able to at least point you in the right direction. They, indeed, should run the world.
As a writer, if you find yourself in a rut in your reading life, there is no better place to seek inspiration than the library. I’ve been known to take pictures of the covers of books I find interesting in order to add them to my to-be-read pile later. At times, just the creative grouping or display of books at the library is enough to spark ideas. If nothing else, pick up a copy of the magazine BookPage to find out what’s new.
Utilize Audiobooks to Energize and Expand Your Reading Life
Sometimes, a book is just better via audiobook. I admit, I was skeptical. It felt like cheating. Frankly, the book Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim changed all that. As a fan of both The LIttle House on the Prairie book series and TV show, I knew that I didn’t want to miss Nellie Oleson herself reading her memoir. I was not disappointed. Currently, I am listening to The Storyteller by Dave Grohl. It is another example of the audiobook format being well worth it. Right now, with audiobooks, I am focusing on memoirs read by their authors. It seems a natural fit.
Personally, between work and school, I drive quite a bit. As much as I love listening to the radio and music, audiobooks are a great way to make the most of my time in the car. It gives me more time to devote to books, which is always a good thing.
Catalog – and Share – Your Reading Life
Before there was Goodreads, there was LibraryThing. While I have used other benefits of LibraryThing over the years (I am a lifetime member), it offers a way to easily catalog your collection of books or simply track your reading. Similar to Goodreads, LibraryThing also connects communities of readers.
Sadly, I don’t use either website to track my reading as I am trying to come up with a good system that I will continue to use. However, both Goodreads and LibraryThing are both excellent ways to find new titles, connect with other readers, read book reviews, and so much more.
Personally, one of my favorite annual features of LibraryThing is SantaThing during the Christmas season. After choosing a participation level between $20-$50, someone else in the LibraryThing community is tasked with finding books for you to enjoy within that dollar amount. As a participant, you get to pick for others. Fortunately, there is a form to fill out that helps avoid duplicates, detail favorite genres/authors, and more. It is fun to both pick out books for someone you don’t know and see what others have selected for you. I have participated for several years at this point, and I have yet to be disappointed. I view it as an annual birthday/Christmas present to myself. It is yet another way in which I’ve come across wonderful books I would have never picked up otherwise.
Sharing books is equally important. Frankly, I can’t imagine my reading life without having opportunities to share what I’ve read with others. I’m fortunate to have grown up in a family that shared and discussed books. Today, I share book reviews on my blog, Ramblings of a Misguided Blonde, and I still share my favorites with family and friends. Beware, I tend to review books I love. I rarely write a negative book review as I can think of only one exception.
Where do I begin? First, if you are or were a fan of The Little House on the Prairie TV show in the 70s and 80s, I can’t recommend this book enough. Be aware: This isn’t saccharine. Far from it. If you are easily offended, this probably isn’t for you. However, if you loved to hate Nellie as a little girl and wished each week for Laura to give Nellie exactly what she deserved – in spades – this book is for you. If you ever thought that playing the most outrageous villain possible on TV would be fun, once again, this book is for you. Last but not least, if you count Nellie Oleson and her overbearing mother Harriet among the favorite TV characters from your childhood, you need to read this book.
Frankly, both The Little House on the Prairie TV show and the children’s book series were a huge part of my childhood. I can’t imagine growing up without either. I do know that by 2nd grade, I was hooked. Mrs. Butz reading Little House in the Big Woods to our 2nd grade class saw to that. In early elementary school, I would fly off the bus to make sure I didn’t miss the start of Little House on the Prairie at 4 PM, in much the same way I made sure I was home at 4 PM during my high school years to watch Oprah. It was simply what I did, and I loved every minute of it.
I know that there are still a lot of adult fans of the show out there – millions of them, in fact – but I’m not really one of them. As an adult, I couldn’t get over the increasingly bizarre storylines that strayed further and further from the books – Albert’s opium addiction, anyone? Then there was the issue of no mountains in Minnesota, where the show was supposedly set, and the fact that the Ingalls family spent a big part of Laura’s childhood in DeSmet, South Dakota. In reality, the Ingalls family didn’t live in Walnut Grove for long. Still, there was something special about the show. It might be a little too sweet for my taste now, but back then, it was the best.
Nellie and Harriet made the show, of course. The Ingalls were so wholesome and down to earth that they needed Nellie and Harriet as foils. Personally, I think the show would not have worked without their over-the-top antics. They had to be just that outrageous. In the book, Alison talks lovingly about her TV parents. Supposedly, in real life, they were similar to their TV characters, although Katherine MacGregor (Harriet) was much nicer, even if just as bold. Alison’s descriptions of Katherine alone make the book worthwhile. As fun as Harriet was to watch, the best scenes were the ones in which Nellie and Laura actually fight.
About Laura and Nellie … in real life, Alison Arngrim (Nellie) and Melissa Gilbert (Laura) were best friends. They spent a lot of time together on and off set and at each other’s homes. One of their favorite pastimes happened to be simply appearing in public together. People freaked out. I can only imagine how much fun they had playing up their “rivalry.”
Alison’s antics with Melissa Gilbert are a great part of the book, but there is so much to unpack here. First, there is that voice. I chose to listen to the audiobook version as soon as I learned that she read her own book. As soon as I started listening, I knew I had made the right choice. Regardless, the book would have hit me with a huge wave of nostalgia, but Alison reading her book in a voice that I have always associated with childhood evil personified: priceless.
In all fairness to Alison, she comes across as extremely down to earth in her book to the point that I’d actually love to meet her. She spends quite some time discussing the perils and perks of playing one of TV’s greatest child villains. Can you imagine growing up playing a character people loved to hate? Once, during a publicity event at a private school, an event that she attended with Katherine MacGregor (Harriet Oleson), both in full costume, some of the students shoved her so hard that she laid face down on the pavement for a while until her father realized what had happened to her. He ended up taking her home immediately. It was the last time she attended a publicity event in costume. How do you deal with that all before adolescence?
In the book, Alison uses the trauma she experienced as a child as a way to frame her memoir. No, her trauma isn’t exactly what comes to mind with young stars and Hollywood, but sadly, it seems all the more common – and of course, very real. I’m not going to discuss it here for many reasons; the main one being that, in a way, it is the point of her memoir. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it. She has used that trauma to try and help prevent others from experiencing the same thing. In essence, she uses her “inner b*tch” to create real legislative change in an effort to protect kids – all kids.
One of the more interesting tidbits I learned in the book is the history behind why the TV show deviated so much from the books. Michael Landon supposedly exclaimed at one time: “My God! Have you actually read the books? There are descriptions of churning butter!” In other words, they had to up the action. I get it, I do. What makes a great book doesn’t necessarily make great television.
I suppose that’s what has always bothered me about the TV show. As an aspiring writer, it sickened me to think what happened to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original work. Now, older and wiser, I can see the value of the TV show too. I am sure it inspired millions of kids to pick up the original books. All publicity is good publicity, right? For people who grew up with the TV show, I can’t recommend Confessions of a Prairie B*tch enough. There are so many great aspects to Alison Arngrim’s memoir. It is a wonderful combination of nostalgia, good story, and humor. By the way, Alison’s voice impression of Melissa Gilbert is hilarious. Several other memoirs have been written by the child stars of Little House on the Prairie. In fact, I plan on reading both of Melissa Gilbert’s books. I will be surprised if Confessions of a Prairie B*tch doesn’t remain my favorite.
Ah, Michigan State and all of my Alternative Spring Break (ASB) memories in Mexico. Some of my best ASB memories involve W.M., and one in particular, November Rain by Guns N’ Roses. It takes me back to nothing less than the most romantic evening of my life.
I met him at the airport as we headed to Merida, Mexico for a week of working hard doing volunteer work and playing even harder. I was listening to Here Comes the Sun, ready to relax in the Yucatecan sun in the middle of a busy, crazy spring semester, and here was this guy – our site leader for the week – chatting me up. He flashed me this great smile and asked me what I was listening to at the moment. We bonded over George Harrison.
It didn’t take us long to become friends. By the end of our first day of volunteer work, we were hanging out eating pizza and drinking Mexican beer, getting lost in deep, meaningful conversations. I had lost my grandfather almost exactly a year before – at age 20, the first real loss of someone so close to me – and I was happy to find someone who understood. That was the thing – W.M. and I should have had everything in common.
A year ahead of me, he studied marketing and Spanish to my supply chain management and Spanish. No wonder we had found one another. Later, the only time I actually met up with him on campus in East Lansing – or the United States for that matter, and for lunch no less – he told me all about his semester in Quito, Ecuador. I don’t remember if I had already decided on a semester in Ecuador, but after hearing about W.M.’s experiences there, it was a forgone conclusion.
I’d love to say that this story is a college romance that ended well, but that simply wasn’t the case. Instead, it is a story of friendship spanning years, countries, cultures, and continents that didn’t end so well. It is also a story of unrequited love on my part. I fell. Hard.
The thing is that I was never going to change my plans for anyone, muchless a man who hadn’t shown the least bit interest in anything more than friendship. We left it as friends and that was it. We were both driven with much to do. That is, until Spain.
Fast forward nearly two years, and I was in the middle of my semester abroad in Caceres, Spain. I’d resigned to myself that W.M., unfortunately, wanted to remain friends, nothing more. Then I received the email. The week before Valentine’s Day, I receive an email from him stating that he had landed an internship in Madrid – an easy train ride away – did I want to meet up? Did I!
In the end, we spent a fun weekend in Madrid hanging out. He booked me a hostel near wherever he was living. We spent Saturday hanging out, eventually ending up at the Hard Rock Cafe and a beautiful park nearby. We talked for hours. Too good to be true, right? Right. When he walked me back to the hostel and didn’t even so much as kiss me goodnight, I wept.
In 2004, I returned to Mexico and ASB as a site leader myself. Now a senior, I juggled interviewing for full-time positions in Texas with classwork along with all of my extracurricular responsibilities, including ASB. As a result, I had to fly into Mexico City on my own and take a bus to Puebla to meet up with the rest of the group. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but W.M. got ahold of me once again. Would I like to meet up for dinner in Puebla one evening? He happened to be working in Mexico City at the time.
Beyond confused, I, of course, said yes. I had no idea what to expect. Why would this man take a bus at least two hours each way just to spend the evening with me? He knew no one else in the group and the plan was just for the two of us to meet up. We were friends, but seriously, what else was going on here?
I met him in the zocalo, or town square, and we quickly found an outdoor table at a local restaurant. In my mind, the only thing better than Mexican food is authentic Mexican food. The cuisine in Puebla tops them all. Pollo en salsa mole anyone?
After watching the sunset over an incredible authentic Mexican dinner, a little red wine, and the ever present great conversation, W.M. and I somehow found our way into the Mexican equivalent of a dive bar. Now, I am not much of a drinker, but I love the atmosphere in dive bars from time to time. This one happened to be perfect.
I never really did see any sign advertising the place, but I could not have had more fun. W.M. and I ended up holding court with a group of Mexican young men roughly our age. We, two gringos who spoke Spanish who happened to end up in this cool unadvertised bar, stood out. In fact, they thought we were married. So, in this ambiance, we all start singing along to November Rain – very poorly. It is still among the most romantic nights of my life – and he never even so much as kissed me. Yet, there was at least enough chemistry between us for people to think we were married.
That was the last time I ever saw W.M. In 2008, I looked him up on Facebook, and unfortunately, it ended up in a political argument that ended our friendship. I still have no idea how he could have attended the same business school as me, and yet not understand the impact government can have on business, good or bad – small business in particular. Time had not treated him well. In fact, Diego Rivera comes to mind. I recently watched Frida and it all came flooding back, much to my amusement. The passion between Frida and Diego gets me every time.
Over the years, I’ve tried and tried to capture our friendship in writing, and I’ve never been able to do it well. I once even brought an effort for critique, and the reaction of the men in my writing group still cracks me up. Every last man in our group believed him to be gay. All I have to say is this: If he is indeed gay, he didn’t know it himself at the time. The last I knew, he had a Mexican girlfriend and lived in California.
I can’t help but think of him every time I watch Casablanca, particularly the line “We’ll always have Paris.” Indeed. We’ll always have Merida, Madrid, and Puebla.
If you stick around long enough, you’ll realize just how much I adore the Motown girl groups of the early ‘60s. Yet, Be My Baby by the Ronettes is perhaps my favorite. There is something downright haunting about the song and Ronnie Spector’s voice. In fact, some of my favorite Christmas songs are versions sung by the Ronettes as well.
Be My Baby demonstrates Phil Spector’s wall of sound so well. In fact, I can’t imagine the Ronettes sound without it. Yet, here I am probably the only person on the planet under the age of 50 to know what Phil Spector’s wall of sound is or who Phil Spector was. The funny thing is that it didn’t always work so well. I normally love it in the girl group music he helped produce, and yet, The Long and Winding Road and most of the Let It Be (1970) album is overproduced. I actually understood why the Beatles, led by Paul McCartney, released a stripped down version called Let It Be… Naked (2003) decades later, reimagining the entire album without Spector’s wall of sound. I actually prefer Naked.
Sadly, Ronnie, who happened to have befriended the Beatles at the height of their (and her) fame, passed away in January 2022. Her legacy lives on, and frankly, I can’t imagine a time when Be My Baby won’t be considered an absolute pop gem.