Archive for the ‘Memoir/Autobiography’ Category

Yesterday afternoon, I found out one of my students died in an accident Saturday night. This was an extremely intelligent 20-year-old boy from Chicago. He had a 4.0 average and was one of the brightest students in my class.

Sitting here today, I remember something I once heard about the word peace. Peace is something we associate with lying in the sun on summer vacation, but in reality we never find ourselves entirely free of stress, pain, fear and the responsibilities of life. Real peace thrives in moments we don’t expect it, in the midst of the wars we struggle with in ourselves.

I felt this kind of peace the last year of my mother’s life. Some switch flipped on and kept me going during the months I watched her in pain and was unsure what to do. We are a results-oriented people, but there are times in life we can’t produce results, we can’t be strategic and plan our days efficiently, we can’t focus.

Some people call this thing within us God, but I think of it as a limitless communication system that keeps the mind, body and spirit operating and linked with each other when all the circuits aren’t open. It is a peace at work no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in. It makes us more stable in the end, attaches to places in our minds, bodies and spirits we can’t reach ourselves.

I think about this today because I want to say it to that boy’s family, because I wanted to say it to my class last night. But it is not a time to speak of peace. We are all still too overwhelmed with the news.

Here is a story he wrote this semester called Flugzeug:

East Berlin

Herman had an unchanging daily routine. He would wake up every morning at 6 a.m., dress, and trudge 10 feet from his bedroom to the coffeepot. His apartment was a studio consisting of a closet-sized bedroom, a kitchen and living area. Ritualistically, Herman would put on half a pot of Röstfein coffee and begin cooking eggs, sometimes sausage. He would have exactly two cups of coffee with breakfast. When he was finished eating, he would pour the rest of the coffee into a tacky key lime colored thermos before making the descent to the street.

The whole routine took about 30 minutes. After exiting the building, he would sputter away in his boxy, rusted, sky blue Trabant, his beloved Trabi. Nine hours later he would return home from the RFT radio factory where he worked as an electrician. Work was generally unchanging from day to day, and Herman was a valued employee because of the skilled and efficient manner in which he approached his trade. Where many see such a routine as monotonous, Herman found it to be a refreshing dose of stability in such tumultuous times.

The year was 1974. The air in Berlin, Germany, was quite suddenly and abnormally becoming colder, damper, and heavier. It was strange even for late September. To Herman Reichle, the shift was especially sharp and unpleasant. Many things were unpleasant those days. From the window (one of two) in the closet-sized apartment he called home, Herman could see the wall, barbed wire, and guard towers as they stabbed at the sky like the arms and legs of fallen soldiers. Berlin was racked by terrorism, violence, and a fear of resurging fascist ideals. Perhaps worst of all was the construction of a wall in 1961, one that physically divided east and west, German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, families, and lovers.

On the fourth floor, Herman was level with the top of the guard towers. The guards looked down on the streets with apathy and a yawning disposition. The air in Herman’s kitchen was stale from greasy meals cooked with little ventilation. Herman suppressed the urge to choke. Everything outside the little rectangle that hung above the kitchen sink was gray. When Herman imagined East Berlin, before he saw his crumbling apartment building on Taubenstrasse, before he saw the shops and the alleyways and the homeless and the violence, he saw gray — unadulterated, ugly gray.

In his free time, Herman liked to take walks along the canals near his house. His lifelong devotion to work had left him with few friends and no wife, so he had come to find comfort in things outside of personal relationships. In his youth, he had known love and let a few soul mates slip from his grip, but his love for his family and career were by far the greatest. He struggled to support his family through the great inflation, the 30s, and WWII.

He left school at age 13 to work as a farm hand 20 miles outside of Berlin. He learned his trade from the master of the farm who would repair radios in the evenings. Herman was only 45, but his face was wrinkled and he had terrible posture. The creases in his face seemed to portray a permanent sad expression. The years of tough work, hunger, and stress had worn on him. The canals he walked near reminded him of evenings he would spend on the banks of the Spree with his boyhood friend Samuel. It represented a time of innocence and optimism for Herman. Almost every night, Herman would sit on a bench facing the canal, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette while drinking in the scent of the water and tobacco, the sound of the geese, and the touch of the breeze.

As with any regular routine, one comes to know recurrent sights and sounds as well as the routines of others. Herman had witnessed Berlin go through dramatic changes that many people in other parts of the world couldn’t understand. He had seen his home destroyed, an entire portion of the population evacuated, book burnings, beatings in the streets, the rise and fall of two regimes, and the marks of hunger and disparity that characterized each decade of his life. He returned to Berlin after much of it had been rebuilt, having moved to Frankfurt an der Oder toward the end of the war and remaining there until he returned in 1960. He had come to know people like him who stuck to their routine despite the massive changes going on around them. One of these people was Hugo Ritter.

Hugo lived across the street in a small, yellow, dilapidated house. It was one of the few houses that remained in the area, and it became increasingly apparent that it would soon get demolished to make way for another apartment complex. Hugo refused to have any say in the matter. To defend the location of his boyhood home would be against the greater good of the state, a form of treason. The house had obviously been rebuilt after the war. Perhaps Hugo rebuilt it himself. Herman would never know. In fact, Herman knew very little about Hugo at all. Every so often they would exchange a polite, “Hallo!” or “Tag!” but no real conversation. Herman never expected Hugo to be anything but an echo to his hello, that is until the noises started in late October.

Hugo first began to notice the sounds during his regular trips to the canal. He could nearly set his watch to them. They began at around 10:30 p.m. every night, about half an hour after Hugo returned from the auto plant. Sometimes it was a banging, a hammer perhaps. Other times it would be ding, as if Hugo was ringing a loud bell. Every so often the noises would be interrupted with a loud, “Scheisse!” Sometimes Herman would stand outside the man’s house and try to make out the origin of the sound. “Whack, whack, scheisse!” He couldn’t put his finger on it.

People on the block began to spread rumors. “Maybe he’s boxing someone,” one boy chimed. For a second, Herman thought that possible. He figured that Hugo could be hitting a punching bag or something similar. After all, the man always seemed so distraught. Maybe he was releasing some pent up aggression. “Nonsense, autos,” a man interjected, “He makes autos.” The noises continued into late December then suddenly ceased. Taubenstrasse no longer had something to talk about. The block remained silent until the end of January when the silence was once again broken.

Liebe Hugo

“Hässliche Arschloch! What have you done with my Volkswagen you little asshole?” Herman heard someone scream and rushed outside to investigate. A large man in a dirty gray Jacket and large black boots was holding a boy of about seventeen in his sausage-like fingers. The boy’s charcoal colored sweatshirt was constricting his neck as the man held it tighter and tighter. “Nichts! I know you stole it you stupid swine!” the man replied. “I swear I didn’t! You can ask my father!” the boy said.

The neighbors were growing concerned. A couple of women had their hands over their mouths. The citizens looked on in shock, not knowing how to respond to the scene. The large man looked like angry enough to kill the boy. “Where’s my car goddamnit?” Herman was transfixed on the two until he saw a figure move in from the corner of his vision. “Leave him alone!” shouted Hugo Ritter.

Hugo was wearing an oil-stained, forest green jumpsuit. It was his work uniform. Hugo was a tall and imposing man, perhaps six foot three inches tall and with a muscular build. A disheveled tuft of black hair sat on the top of his head. He was in his late thirties. “This little thief stole my car,” replied the big man in the gray jacket. “You saw him steal your car?” Hugo asked. “No but this little bastard has stolen from me before,” replied the man. Looking upon the fat figure with disdain, Hugo responded in a condescending tone, “Maybe you should look into things more before you go choking kids to death. When was it stolen?”

Now facing Hugo, the man rebuffed, “Some time late last night.” Hugo shook his head, looked the man in the eyes, and said, “He is one of the night watchmen at the auto factory. I know for a fact he was working last night. He couldn’t have stolen the car.” “Ach,” grunted the man. He then faced the boy, “You’re lucky! This guy may have saved your stupid little life. I’m phoning the Polizei. They’ll sort this out.” Turning quickly away, the big man stomped his way onto the sidewalk and into his apartment building. The boy stared at Hugo with confusion and mouthed the word, “Danke.”

The police arrived about a half hour later. Herman saw them interviewing the theft victim from his window. The man was flailing his arms about and flapping his fat mouth. Herman heard his muffled screams vibrating through the window. When he had seen enough, Herman retired to his couch and picked up the newspaper sitting on the antique coffee table. After a while, he could no longer hear the man’s voice and figured the police must have told him to calm down.

He began to scan the front page of the Zeitung but was too distracted to read. Why did he bail the boy out? He delivers newspapers. I don’t get why he would … Hugo couldn’t have stolen the car, could he? He couldn’t stop reviewing the scene in his mind. He imagined the large man in the black boots, the tall Hugo staring down at him with his brow creased, the boy’s confused expression. Suddenly, the room echoed with the sound of a loud explosion and then a choppy, sputtering sound. Herman shot up out of his seat. He ran to the window and looked out in terror, filled with flashbacks of WWII bombings. People were standing in the street outside looking at something in disbelief. Herman ran down the stairs of his apartment.

The door flew open as Herman quickly stumbled into the street. There was thick black smoke everywhere. A loud humming rang through the streets. Herman quickly identified the source of the racket. It was the sound of a modified Volkswagon engine roaring in the sky. What appeared to be a large, shiny silver tin can with wings was headed right toward the dead zone, the mine filled area between the east and west walls. Hugo’s head poked out of the top of the aircraft. He was wearing a brown, hard leather helmet. He was trying to fly right into West Berlin!

“Go, Go, Go!” one woman shouted. “Traitor!” bellowed another. Herman’s eyes followed the plane as it clumsily tore through the sky. “He’s going to make it!’” clamored a boy. The plane was just about to clear the west wall when Herman’s eyes were diverted toward the guard tower. “Oh no!” he cried. The guard had seen him coming and began to shower the small plane with rifle bullets. The sound of the shells tearing through the gut of the plane was sickening. A gut-wrenching scream ricocheted off the buildings. The plane started to spill out more black smoke and became entirely consumed in flame before it shattered into the earth below. The sound of the explosion was followed by the crackling of burning fuel. The air smelled like burnt petroleum.

Herman buried his head in his hands. No matter how many people he saw die, death still got to him. That poor, lonely man. For a moment Herman wished he were in Hugo’s place. He wished it had been him burning in the street. His conscience couldn’t bear any more loss. On the street he saw a piece of paper that had floated down from the wreckage of the plane. He picked it up and read:

Liebe Hugo,

You can’t imagine how hard it is for us. I’m taking eight-hour shifts at a restaurant to support our children. Your paychecks are worthless here. I have to leave little Anita and Thorsten at my mother’s five days out of the week. How could you, Hugo? How could you pick that stupid house over your family? Your children need a father. I’ve been telling them you passed away. I can’t bear to tell them that their father abandoned them. Why haven’t you even considered escape? The hardest part is I still love you despite my anger. l want to see you again. Please, Hugo, think about your children.

Anette Ritter


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“I have always had a level-headed attitude about the vagaries of
so-called fame. I certainly had my share. I was honored by my peers
with an Academy Award and several nominations. I had a
marvelous long-term marriage to a wonderful man to sustain me.
I have all the money I want, and work when I feel like it.
Life has given me, in abundance, all that any woman could
possibly wish for.” Claudette Colbert (1903-1996)

God wasted half a face on Claudette Colbert. — Doris Day

Claudette Colbert preferred not having the right side of her face photographed or filmed. In later movies, entire sets were built to light and frame the left side of her face.
This might sound like the ravings of a spoiled prima donna but Colbert was a good business woman, and her face was her most important asset.

“I had a childhood street accident in New York; I had a tiny bump on my nose when photographed on the right side,” she said in an interview with Lawrence J. Quirk in her 1985 biography. “And name me a professional who doesn’t want to look his or her best. So yes, I asked to be photographed on the left side. It was professionalism, not vanity.”

At age 3, Paris, 1906 (top).
At age 4, 1907, with her mother
and brother George (bottom).

Early Years

Colbert was born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin in Paris in 1903. Her brother George became her agent and business manager during her Hollywood years. She and her family emigrated to the U.S. in 1910, after her father suffered business losses.

“My mother spoke only French to my brother and me when we were children,” she said. “Mother believed that many foreign-born parents erred in speaking English to their youngsters when the adults themselves knew little about it.” 

Colbert’s maternal grandmother moved to the U.S. with them. “She was a woman of great strength of character and stick-to-itiveness,” Colbert said. “I think she kept us all together and functioning. . . . She gave all of us a sense of emotional and physical security. The least neurotic woman I’ve ever know. ‘If you are afraid of something, face it.’ That was her way.”

This was the on-screen persona Colbert became known for. In her movies, she had a poised manner and a down-to-earth, no nonsense attitude. “My grandmother had taught me to avoid inferiority complexes, to go out and get what I wanted, to believe I could be and do anything I wanted. I think I was a very healthy-minded, positivist nineteen year old, and I can thank her for that,” she said.

At age 19, Colbert was teaching French and studying fashion design in New York. She had first performed on stage in a high school play and later landed a small three-line role in the Broadway production of The Wild Westotts. Bit by the acting bug, she began performing stock theater roles.

“I used to stand in the wings every night and watch actors like William Faversham, Lowell Sherman, Arnold Daly — all great names of the theater at that time…. Anyway, I’d watch them every night. I don’t remember the plot now, but I remember the performances. Whenever kids ask me for advice, I tell them to do Off-Broadway, do stock, get practical experience in front of an audience. It’s the only way you learn timing, for one thing.”

Colbert appeared on Broadway throughout the 1920s. When she was 24, she played opposite her soon-to-be husband Norman Foster in a Broadway production of The Barker. About that meeting a friend said, “A girl so passionate and life-loving was bound to have had ‘romantic experiences,’ but I honestly don’t think she knew what real love was until she met Norman.

“He really bowled her over. She was very close to her mother and brother always, as well as to her grandmother, and I think she thought of them as protective shields against the wolves. She was always a discreet person, and a fundamentally decent and orderly one. But the shields were unavailing against Norman. There was a shyness and vulnerability and, yes, an innocence about him that disarmed her.”

Hollywood Years

In 1928, Colbert signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and began appearing in silent films. A year later she appeared in her first talkie, The Hole in the Wall with Edward G. Robinson. By 1934, she’d won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in It Happened One Night with Clark Gable. She is the only actress in history to star in three films all nominated for Best Picture Academy Award the same year: It Happened One Night, Cleopatra and Imitation of Life.

She divorced Foster in 1935 and married UCLA-surgeon Joel Pressman that same year. They remained married for 33 years. In the years after his death, she divided her time between a Manhattan apartment and a home in Speightstown, Barbados. When Colbert died in 1996, she left the bulk of her estate to retired Saks Fifth Avenue director of corporate relations Helen O’Hagan. The two met in 1961, and O’Hagan cared for Colbert after she had a series of strokes in 1993.

Helen O’Hagan

Colbert appeared in 65 films between 1927 and 1961 and continued working on stage into the late 1980s. Her biographer Lawrence Quirk said about her in 1981, “As I looked at her, I was amazed to realize that the charming, well-groomed, youthfully radiant woman before me was seventy-eight years old. She had taken excellent care of herself and has applied to her personal life the same discipline she devoted to her career. . . .

“She told me, ‘I’m glad to broadcast my true age, if only to remind my contemporaries, and people of all ages, that it isn’t the years they have to worry about; it’s how they take care of themselves. A body that is treated right will serve you right.”

Praying to Claudette Colbert

Of Colbert’s 65 films, I’ve only seen 25. It’s difficult to find them in print. I’ve never been a collector, but if I could collect and watch all 65 of Colbert’s films I would. It’s difficult to describe the connection I feel with a movie actress who is no longer alive. But at times in life I need courage, I sometimes find it watching her films.

When I read Colbert’s biography, I realized it was really her grandmother, Marie Loew, who had survived the Siege of Paris in 1871 when France was attacked by Germany, that I owe my gratitude. The courage she instilled in her granddaughter and the common sense, don’t-panic attitude are strengths I draw from in Colbert’s films.

In a sense, you can say I pray to Claudette Colbert, if prayer means calling on the strength, humor and endurance of another person. I also feel that connection with certain poets. I don’t know what I’d do without the poems and letters of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, for example, who died in 1979. Pouring over drafts of her poems, I see what it takes to have depth in writing and begin to hear her voice in my own poetry.

I can’t go so far to say I hear the voice of Claudette Colbert in my everyday life, but I do believe that part of being human is feeling connected to other humans for inexplicable reasons, whether you meet them or actually see them in day-to-day life or not. I absorb Colbert’s character when I watch her films in the same way she absorbed the craft of acting by watching actors backstage in the 1920s. It’s how one generation offers itself to the next.

It’s not hard to see why I would be drawn to such a graceful, charming and beautiful woman, but in context of what I’m saying here, it’s her psychological strength I draw from in her films, that has left its biggest imprint on me and was apparently part of her off-screen character as well as her on-screen persona. It’s the poised, intelligent woman who meets life’s challenges with her head as well as her heart I take into my life.

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Black-capped chickadee

Walking in a field near my office yesterday, a bird song caught my attention. I have a habit as a singer of imitating bird calls to see if I can match the intervals and pitch. This was a two-part whistle with an interval of a third in between. The first note was higher than the second.

From a tree in an opposite field, I heard the response, also a two-part whistle with an interval of a third, but lower in pitch. By the time I got home, I couldn’t remember the notes.

This morning in bed, I dreamed the song again. I could hear the birds calling to each other across the field. As I opened my eyes in the dim room, I listened to the call and answer of the two-part song. Then I realized I wasn’t dreaming. One of the birds was in the tree outside my window.

I jumped up and ran to my piano. It was an interval of a third as I thought. The first note was a high C, and the second was an A two notes below that. The response was the A again and then the F two notes below that. Today on the phone, I whistled the call to a woman at a local bird shop, and she helped me identify the bird. She said, “That’s the Hey-Sweetie of the black-capped chickadee.”

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother today, having found some embroidery work she stitched in a tablecloth left to me by my mother. My grandmother was born in 1900 and died in 1970, the year I turned six. I e-mailed my brother to see if he knew where she is buried in Mississippi. He wrote back, “As I recall water valley ms. Very small country cemetery. You would probably never find it.”

But I did find it. It’s a small cemetery in Pope, Mississippi, called Chapel Hill. When I was sitting at my desk searching for it, I felt like a small bird calling to a woman across time I hardly knew. I thought of her at 20 years old marrying a man 40 years older and raising five children in a small house in Memphis on income made from ironing and sewing.

I thought of the fine handwork of her embroidery and how evenly and perfectly stitched the thread is on both sides of the cloth. If you looked at the underside of a button I’d sewn on, you’d see a thick mat of threads intersecting the cloth like layers of a freeway overpass in Dallas.

I remember playing with buttons my grandmother gave me as a child. I’d pour jar after jar on the floor, sorting the buttons based on size and shape and color and texture. What I wouldn’t do for one of those beautiful jars of buttons now.

Below is the bird song of the black-capped chickadee. The notes aren’t quite the same as those I hear in Colorado:

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Stars of Texas Robin Williams, Mari Holden, Lance Armstrong …
celebrities and athletes alike were in Austin to inspire.

The Cranberries are singing on the radio: Understand, what I’ve become, it wasn’t my design. And people everywhere think something better than I am.

As I listen to the words of that music on a road trip to Austin, Texas, to the Ride for the Roses, I’m wondering if Lance Armstrong can relate to the lyrics. Heroes become something in our minds better than they are. This is confirmed when Erika, one of my traveling companions squeals, “We’re entering Armstrong County! We must be heading in the right direction.”

To the people I’m riding with, the name Armstrong means courage, self-will against all odds, even a kind of unshakable positive attitude.

Erika’s partner, Sharon, seems to be gripping the steering wheel against all odds. The 90 mph winds we hit in Amarillo whip the RV constantly. John, her brother, comments quietly, “Maybe a high-profile vehicle wasn’t the best idea for this trip.”

Final page proof of article I wrote for VeloNews in 2001.

But Sharon doesn’t hear him. John’s understated comments and quiet words often get lost in the wind-ratted RV. On the side of the highway, we see half of a modular home that has been flipped over during transport and left stranded in the high grass.

John sits at a fold-down table and works on his laptop. A civil engineer, he is scribbling math notations into a spiral notebook, then working out the problems on a computer. As he stares out the window, he makes thinking some like an elegant process, as lean and efficient as he is. His shoulders are stooped, like those of an old man who has leaned over a computer for too many years.

The disease must have done that, I think to myself.

Multiple myeloma, the type of blood cancer John is recovering from, has caused four compression fractures in his spine, leaving him three inches shorter than he was a year ago. A young man in his 30s, he looks much older — his skin a little too dry, his hair too brittle. The chemotherapy and tandem bone-marrow transplants have taken their toll. But John is only a bent man, not broken. He is still fighting to regain something of the young man he was. His freckled face and reddish-blond hair are just waiting for him to return.

During this past year, when John was 20 pounds lighter and his other sister Ann had to help him stand — even help him lift his laptop — the Ride for the Roses seemed like a dream, a dream of Sharon’s that John could only smile and be polite about. But Sharon kept hope alive and believed in taking this trip even when he couldn’t possible imagine it.

Counting Crows sings out over the radio: “Believe in me because I don’t believe in anything and I want to be someone who believes.” Who believes, who believes — the words repeat over and over again.

As we get closer to Austin, the roadsides are covered with blue flowers, mixed in with the orange paintbrush. I can’t help but wonder why Lance’s ride isn’t called The Ride for the Bluebonnets.

“Lance inspired me,” John says shyly. He has read Lance’s book, he informs me, and has several of Lance’s posters on his bedroom wall. He quotes one for me: “I no longer take anything for granted. There are only good days and great days.” And another: “My cancer is just like me — it’s mean, it’s aggressive, it’s tough.” Sharon relates proudly how she and Erika managed to get Lance’s autograph for John when they did the Ride for the Roses the year before.

When we stop to gas up, Erika tells me how John’s third sister, Sandy, made everyone in this “non-emotive” family sit down at Thanksgiving and write on a piece of paper what they gave thanks for in each other. “They wrote simple things,” Erika says, “All three sisters and John’s parents gave thanks to him for fighting. That was huge then, because at that point he was pretty tired of fighting.”

John says later that if it weren’t for the prayers and support of his family and friends, he wouldn’t be here today.

The next day is sunny, but windy, in Austin. John, Erika and Sharon complete their 66-mile ride. “I almost dreaded it when we got a tail wind,” Erika laughs. “John would put it in the big ring and just take off.”

Sharon adds, “Last year at this time I thought I’d be remembering my brother … not trying to keep up with him as he hammered along. “The words on John’s T-shirt, I’m a survivor, were only a blur to the many people he passed that day. “What kind of drugs is he on?” they conclude together triumphantly, “Chemo fuel.”

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Elvis in 1957, after Graceland purchase.

I can imagine music without sound, but not without time.
— former music teacher

Before my mother died, she wanted to make one last trip to Memphis. We rented a Lincoln Continental and drove ten hours from Austin, where she lived at the time.

In Memphis, we’d lived in a neighborhood about five miles from Graceland. Our neighborhood was on one side of the Memphis International Airport, and Graceland was on the other. When Elvis purchased the house in 1957 it was located on Highway 51 South in a rural part of town. The street later became Elvis Presley Blvd.

Graceland’s original owner, S.C. Toof, named the property for his daughter Grace. My mother and I drove past Graceland on our visit to Memphis. It’s on the same street as Forest Hill cemetery, where my father is buried. Elvis and his mother were also buried at Forest Hill before their bodies were moved to the Graceland.

Graceland is a colonial-style mansion with 23 rooms,
including eight bedrooms. The entrance
has four white colonnades and two large
lions on both side of the portico.

Recently, Forest Hill sent photos of my parent’s graves. Across my mother’s tombstone is a dark stain where vines or weeds must have grown. The neighborhood Graceland is in, Whitehaven, is now a high-crime area. High school friends were shot and killed in the grocery store where I once worked, and Whitehaven became carjack capital of the U.S.

Driving around Whitehaven in a new Lincoln Continental made me uneasy, but my mother wasn’t nervous. She drove into a trailer park near Forest Hill where a distant cousin lived. I waited anxiously while she talked to her cousin on the front porch and handed her a large-print Bible. Her cousin didn’t look like she wanted the Bible, but mom hadn’t seen her cousin for years and, “Bibles always make good steady gifts.”

Elvis at Lansky’s clothing store

Both my parents attended the same high school Elvis went to, Humes, but graduated five years before he did. When I hear stories from this period of Elvis’s life in the early 50s, I don’t hear stories of a rock star but of a Memphian.

He shopped at the same men’s clothing store my grandfather, father and brother all shopped in. Lansky’s is located downtown on Beale St. just east of the Mississippi river. Beale St. was home to blues and jazz legends B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and W.C. Handy. When I was in high school, I snuck down to Beale St. in a 1970 green Ford Maverick bought from a neighbor for $400 to listen to blues singer Ruby Wilson.

Standing in front of gates
of Graceland in 1973 with cousins.

A few blocks from Beale St. down a back alley in a basement is a restaurant called the Rendezvous. It sells the best dry ribs I’ve ever eaten. Other parts of the U.S. sell beef barbecue, but in Memphis it’s pork. On a Saturday night, you can smell barbecue cooking all the way downtown to the river, and Elvis ate there as many Memphians did.

Today I was in in a barbecue restaurant in Boulder and heard a husband say to his wife, “Graceland, that’s one place I’ve never been.” On the wall were photos of B.B. King, Elvis, newspaper clippings from Memphis and a plastic-head Elvis shrine. The Presley family still lived at Graceland when I was a child and the house itself wasn’t open to the public, but we could tour the grounds and see the guitar-shaped swimming pool in the backyard.

Elvis’s music was not music we listened to in our house. My mother preferred Luciano Pavarotti or Beverly Sills. On the weekends, we cleaned house listening to Handel’s Messiah at full tilt. My father preferred Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee.

Commercial Appeal published
Aug. 18, 1977, two days after
Elvis’s death, showing fans
waiting to view his body at Graceland.
Crowds were estimated
between 50,000 to 100,000.

When it was announced on TV that Elvis died in 1977, I was sitting on the floor playing jacks. The cause of death was uncertain at the time but later reported as heart failure. It’s now believed he died from complications related to drug use. Thousands of people descended on the city when they heard the news, and traffic made it impossible to drive anywhere for weeks.

I’ve often wondered if Elvis felt his life was full of grace. His fame made it impossible for him to be seen in public. The first house the Presleys bought in Memphis was on the east side of town on Audubon Drive near a church my family and I attended. When the neighbors became unsettled by the growing number of fans and newspaper reporters, he gave his parents, Gladys and Vernon, $100,000 to purchase a house with land surrounding it. The family had been very poor before they moved to Memphis and Elvis started his career. They lived in a shotgun house built by Vernon in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Elvis became so famous it’s debated now whether he or the Beatles hold the record for most songs charted in Billboard‘s top 40 and top 100, but by the end of his 23-year career he was addicted to drugs and sometimes became violent with fans. His family squandered money on extravagant expenses. Vernon had a swimming pool built in his bedroom. After Elvis’s death, his estate had dwindled to such an extent, his ex-wife Priscilla was forced to open Graceland to the public. 

As my mother and I drove home from Memphis on that trip, she told me a story from her childhood I’d never heard. In 1933 when she was five years old, she was admitted to Cheerfield Farm Children’s Home, a facility opened in 1921 to serve malnourished, anemic and turberculosis-susceptible children. A 2007 Junior League of Memphis newsletter described the home as “fed from a spring in the midst of a beautifully wooded and hilly track of land,” from a pool “deep enough for the kiddies to have all the fun they need, but not deep enough to be dangerous,” with a dining room “with pretty gray and blue furniture.”

Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Cheerfield Farm was not cheery for my mother. Left there without explanation, she cried herself to sleep every night. Her family was also poor and lived in a shotgun house in downtown Memphis. I asked her once why they called it a shotgun house, and she said, “If you aimed a shotgun through the front door, you could shoot it out the back door.”

There’s something beautiful about a teenage Elvis in 1953, greasing his hair back and wearing his new Lansky Brother’s suit as he stepped into Sun Studios on Union Ave. to make his first recording. At the time he was still singing ballads as well as gospel music he learned at the Assembly of God church he attended in Tupelo. He paid for a few minutes of time to record the ballad That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.

Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studios, later asked Elvis to record the ballad Without You. The song wasn’t a good fit for Elvis’s voice, so Phillips asked him to sing as many songs as he knew. When they were about to give up, Elvis broke into a 1946 blues song That’s All Right, and that was the sound Phillips was looking for.

This is the part of the Presley story I like best, when he was goofing around, just being himself, not trying to impress anyone and in the process found his voice. It’s the same moment Jackson Pollock had when he first dribbled house paint onto a canvas or Madame Curie had when she first saw radium glow. “That’s the world I want to live in,” abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler said when she first saw a Pollock painting.

That’s the world we all want to live in. We all want that Ah ha! moment when something inside us, something we feel called to, makes it’s way out. That’s the Elvis I imagine jumping around on the floor and singing That’s All Right.

It wasn’t until 1958 Elvis was introduced to amphetamines by a sergeant, when he was serving in the army. The drugs helped him keep up his strength and promoted weight loss, something that became increasingly important to him as a performer when he was touring and appearing in movies.

Was Elvis’s life full of grace? It depends on how you define grace. The word is synonymous with mercy.  It’s also thought of as seemingly effortless beauty of movement. I’ve even heard it defined as the trust other people place in you. Elvis died at 42. A man whose hips and voice synchronized with a new sound, a new rhythm in music, lost pace with his own life. Time itself became accelerated and slowed down by amphetamines and barbiturates until his career and his art form became about others’ needs and not his own.

Presley graves in backyard at Graceland.

I think of this poem by Adrienne Rich:


Nothing he had done before
or would try for later
will explain or atone
this facile suggestion of crossbeams
languid elevations traced on water
his stake in white colonnades cramping his talent
showing up in
facsimile mansions overbearing the neighborhood
his leaving the steel rods out of the plinths
(bronze raptors gazing from the boxwood)

You could say he spread himself too thin, a plasterer’s term
you could say he was then
skating thin ice his stake in white colonnades against the
thinness of
ice itself a slickened ground
Could say he did not then love
his art enough to love anything more

Could say he wanted the commission so
badly betrayed those who hired him an artist
who in dreams followed
the crowds who followed him

Imagine commandeering those oversize those prized
hardwood columns to be hoisted and hung
by hands expert and steady on powerful machines
his knowledge using theirs as the one kind does the
other (as it did in Egypt)
— while devising the little fountain to run all night
outside the master bedroom

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Conservations I’ve had this holiday season have strayed toward extravagant spending. One man built a house around a large, bronze statue he’d purchased. An event planner discussed a $25,000 party she catered celebrating the newest Harry Potter book.

Even though I live in a place where people can spend lavishly, I work in a low-income job. The area encompassing Boulder County is home to about 325,000 people and more than 182,000 jobs. The main industry sector is scientific and technical. The two largest employers are IBM and Ball Aeropsace, each with about 3,000 employees.

Breakout of top 10 industries in Boulder County ranked by number of employees:

  1. Scientific and Technical: 21,168
  2. Education Services: 19,531
  3. Health Care and Social Assistance: 17,484 (This industry tops the list in the state of Colorado.)
  4. Retail Trade: 14,895
  5. Manufacturing: 14, 888
  6. Accommodation and Food Services: 13,469
  7. Information: 8,688
  8. Public Administration: 7,234
  9. Admin., Support, Waste Management, Remediation: 5, 485
  10. Finance and Insurance: 4,971

Publishing falls under Arts, Entertainment and Recreation with 2,787 employees. The women’s media group I belong to in Boulder is 500 members strong. Approximately 100 publishers of books, magazines, newspapers and circulars in print and Web media are in Boulder County. With such a large pool of media professionals and so few publishing jobs, the jobs that do exist don’t pay much.

I live in affordable housing in Boulder. The condo I bought for $100,000 can only sell for $100,000, so I have no equity in the property. I joined the board of my HOA a year ago to learn more about the tenants who live in the complex, to see what it takes to run a 40-year-old building and how affordable housing works in the city.

I recently looked at houses in a town north of Boulder and found some priced as low as $50,000. The $100,000 houses have large rooms, yards and extra buildings. But in conversations with people who live there, I learned the city is plagued with gang violence and the smell from a nearby meatpacking plant. 

Boulder Creek

Employment and housing statistics are something I can quote at the drop of a hat because of my job at the newspaper: Median household income in the city of Boulder, $57, 231; median home sales price, $525,000; median age, 29. At the community college where I taught this semester, I either knew people at the companies where my students worked or knew their parents.

Even though the numbers tell me I shouldn’t remain in Boulder, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Neither of my jobs pays well, but they segway well into each other. Instead of having my students do research papers on random topics this semester, I was able to send them into the community where they could interview people about topics more relavant to their careers.

On a bridge overlooking Boulder Creek yesterday, I stood thinking about all this. Instead of rushing to the next appointment, I lingered for a minute staring at the water, listening to the birds and feeling the sun on my back.

Searching on the Web for houses in that northern Colorado town recently helped me realize my own condo would be empty one day and someone would look through my rooms in virtualized space. The rooms in my future are no more important than the rooms I live in now, only different shapes in different places. When I forget that and don’t loaf in those moments in between everything else happening in my life, whether it’s staring into a creek or napping with my dog on the couch, I forget that. I stress out and begin to despair about my income and future. The numbers in my head rattle louder than they should, and the deeper voice calling me to this place is shut out.

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One of four pair of Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland
in the Wizard of Oz.

When I was teenager, a cousin in Buffalo discovered a woman in Memphis owned a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz. When he and his family visited at Easter, a phone call was made to the owner, Roberta Bauman, to see if we could look at the shoes. She’d won them in a contest in 1970.

When we arrived at her house, she opened the door and asked us to wait a moment. She turned to her coat closet and pulled a shoe box off the top shelf. I hadn’t been too excited to see the shoes and didn’t know what to expect, but the moment she opened the box is one I’ll never forget.

It was a sunny day outside, and each shoe has 2,300 red sequins sewn on. When she opened the box, the 4,600 sequins lit up in the sun like thousands of small stars. In comparison to Bauman’s drab neighborhood, her old wood-frame house and the stench of cats coming through her front door, the contrast was startling.

My cousins Carl and Kylie are fraternal twins, but both wanted to try on the shoes. The shoes were a size 6B, and I could just fit my feet in. Kylie was also able to slip her feet in, but Carl’s big feet were too big. When it was my turn, I clicked my heels and said, There’s no place like home.

L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful
Wizard of Oz was published
in 1900 and was followed
by 15 novel sequels.

Recently Kylie visited me in Colorado. We hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. She and her brother were adopted by my aunt and uncle the year I was born. They are a year younger than I am, but we were all born in June. When she was here, I told her something about the adoption my mother told me.

My aunt loved babies, and when my mother had a little girl, my aunt also wanted a little girl. She and my uncle didn’t want a boy because they already had two teenage sons. My mother said to my aunt, “You can’t do that to those two kids. You can’t separate them. If you take one, you have to take the other.” So, they did.

The twins’ biological parents are artists, and Kylie and Carl are also artists. Kylie makes jewelry, and Carl is the finest drawer I’ve ever known. He would sit for hours when we were kids drawing faces. By the time he was in college, he could draw a face so realistically it looked like a photograph. My uncle, however, was a high school football coach and didn’t understand his adopted son. After Carl graduated from art school, he went through a series of failed relationships and later became a crack addict.

The Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, Toto, Dorothy and Scarecrow

But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin man
that he didn’t, didn’t already have

I’ve always believed people can do or be whatever they want in life. I’m not sure why I believe this. I don’t believe my parents told me that. They had a more practical approach to life, but I know my brother said that often when we were kids.

In my English comp class recently, a student wrote an essay comparing Dorothy of Oz with Alice in Wonderland. She said, “In both the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, the main characters wake up and find they’ve been living a dream. Dorothy and Alice have outstanding imaginations and an overwhelming sense of creativity and use their dreams to escape their lives when obstacles come their way.”

When I think of Judy Garland, two things come to mind, the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow and her later addiction to drugs and alcohol. As a young performer, she was given amphetamines to keep her moving on stage during the day and barbiturates to help her sleep at night. The regular dose led to her addiction.

Her erratic life is much like my cousin Carl’s. The last time we spoke, he could no longer remember these stories from our childhood. When I asked if he still drew, he said he couldn’t focus on it long enough anymore. On Kylie’s visit she said about her brother, “Every time I talk to him he says, ‘I’ve been clean for over a month,’ but he says that every month of the year.”

It’s odd to say, but I’ve often wondered if wearing the Ruby Slippers had some effect on our lives. Judy Garland is one of the only people I know born the same day of the year I was. I remember reading once that people born on June 10 are never at ease with who they are. They have big goals and dreams but don’t feel they have what it takes to bring them about.

Dorothy is given the shoes to help her find her way home. I’ve heard it said, To handle carefully what we hold in our hands is to come to terms with ourselves. It is to accept ourselves. All four of us — all Geminis, all born under the sign of the twins — have tried to use our creativity to come to terms with our lives. Maybe those magic shoes helped us feel more beautiful for a moment, and perhaps feeling that, if only briefly, is the only way any of us ever find our way home.

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