Saturday, January 31, 2015

Rest in Peace, Rod McKuen

I cried when I heard the news about Rod McKuen’s death. (Only briefly, because I was in a marketing meeting and the response when I gasped and said, “Rod McKuen died!” was, “Who’s Rod McKuen?” At that moment, I stifled my tears and questioned the company I am keeping. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not knowing who Rod McKuen is, but there’s a link at the end of this that will enlighten you if you don’t.) For the moment, though, I want to talk about this man’s impact on my life.

Robert Louis Stevenson was the first poet I loved; Rod McKuen was the second. I was 12 and just beginning to discover the world beyond my small, central Florida hometown when my sister came home from college with Rod’s books and records. As the Viet Nam war and the civil rights movement raged on, as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered, as people everywhere were protesting everything, I slipped into adolescence on the wings of the gentle words of this Oakland-born poet who wrote about love and summer mornings, love and yellow buses, love and loneliness, love and snowfall, love and God, and love. Why my mother failed to intervene is a mystery; many of Rod’s poems fell far outside the parameters of my strict Southern Baptist upbringing. Perhaps she, like so many, dismissed poetry as unworthy of notice. Or perhaps she, like so many, never realized the impact that year would have on all our lives. In any case, as those months of ugliness, unrest, and uncertainty permeated the pages of history, I immersed myself in McKuen’s world of keen observations, pensive reflections, probing questions, and insightful assessments.

Along the way, I fell deeper in love with poetry. Since discovering Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (every child should own this book) soon after learning to read, I already loved the genre. But McKuen’s simple, honest words took me to a new level of appreciation and inspired me to view the world in a different way—in my opinion, the most important thing poetry can do. From the beginning, the academic world dismissed McKuen as a lightweight, but the real world wholeheartedly embraced him. In the course of his career, the man sold more than 100 million records and 60 million books. His songs have been recorded by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Madonna, and he earned a Grammy, two Oscar nominations, and a Pulitzer nomination. Some things never change: the academic world still largely dismisses any poet who is commercially successful. I’m not sure why it’s such a sin to have one’s poems adored by the masses; seems to me that’s the ultimate indication of being a successful poet.

In the end, my experience with McKuen’s poetry formed the foundation of my belief that poetry is most valuable when it readily resonates and is easily understood. That conviction is what led me to launch my annual April “Poetry Parade” many years later, which led to the birth of in 2009, a venture currently celebrating its fifth year with a subscription list that continues to grow daily. I actually exchanged emails with my poetic hero in 2003 when I hesitatingly asked permission—and Rod generously granted it—to share one of his poems in that year’s Poetry Parade. (I still have that email in my inbox; I will leave the task of deleting it to my children, when I am dead and gone.)

Not everything Shakespeare or Yeats or Frost wrote was brilliant; not everything Rod McKuen wrote was brilliant, either. But much of what he created touched the hearts of millions and for some, such as I, those words had a lasting impact. I am grateful for his talent and legacy, grateful to have been the recipient of my sister’s literary hand-me-downs, grateful that my introduction to love and its sundry pleasures came packaged in such tenderness. I will miss you, Rod McKuen, but I know the poets’ corner in heaven is definitely a bit brighter today.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

It's Time for the Tao of Thumper

"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." 
  -- Arthur Ashe, American professional tennis player

I read this quote today and thought, it's those who embraced and lived out exactly this attitude in the years leading up to 1776 that we need to be thinking about and thanking as we celebrate American independence this weekend. The people who gave birth to this country weren't special, weren't unified, weren't perfect; they were simply committed to principles they believed in and chose to do whatever they could, wherever they were, with whatever they had. Whichever of the increasingly divergent socio-eco-political principles you believe in, you owe your ability to sing the praises of those principles, ad infinitum and ad nauseum on the world's sundry news and social media channels, to those men and women who died defending theirs.

I am astonished, and saddened, at how angrily divided this country has become. Perhaps there have been other times like these; I can speak only to my own years as an American citizen. No longer is it a matter of simple etiquette to avoid the subjects of politics and religion in conversation, it’s absolutely essential if you want to avoid starting a fight or losing a friend. We can get past Coke vs. Pepsi and Rolling Stones vs. Beatles without too many hard feelings, but mention gay marriage or minimum wage or Hobby Lobby and things get ugly in a hurry.

For that reason, I don’t “do” politics online. Does that make me a wuss? Possibly. But if we don’t dwell on our differences, I can love you without liking your taste in senators or appreciate your sense of humor without appreciating your position on immigration reform. It becomes a different matter, however, when you start labeling my opinions as evil, wrong, or stupid simply because they differ from yours. You may think I am evil, wrong, or stupid, certainly, but how incredibly rude of you to say so—in a public forum, no less! I would never say those things about you. 

To me, it's like books and movies that fill a great story everyone would enjoy with violence and profanity only some will enjoy. I don’t understand the logic of alienating part of your reading/viewing audience—especially if that audience is comprised of friends and family members about whom you ostensibly care. Seems to me a better approach, if you're determined to initiate controversial topics on social media, would be to share reasons why you support your particular solution/candidate/position rather than denigrating what others hold equally dear and declaring them deviant satanic morons.

I don't think anyone would ever call me an activist (except, perhaps, on behalf of poetry or the Oxford comma), but I never miss the opportunity to vote and I've enthusiastically volunteered in a number of political campaigns over the years (for various sides, I will point out; I am all about the person and the issue, not the party). I'm certainly aware of and involved in current issues and affairs, but I see nothing to be gained by vehemently espousing views which, no matter what they are, are guaranteed to invoke reactions ranging from mild surprise to rabid rage from anyone who doesn’t agree with me.

So as we celebrate the 4th of July and move another few days deeper into the unpleasant morass the next 28 months are shaping up to be, I'm asking you to be nice. I’m pretty sure that’s a recommendation given in the Torah, the Qur'an, and the Bible—though, goodness knows, we’ve certainly dropped THAT ball. As Thumper suggested, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” And whether you do it on a lake, at a barbecue, or with a protest sign in your hands, I hope you will celebrate your American heritage this weekend with the pride and appreciation it deserves. At the same time, I hope you will consciously rein in your animosity for your different-from-you-but-equally-deserving-of-respect fellow Americans. We are united, like it or not, and badmouthing your teammates when times get tough is poor sportsmanship at its most repugnant.

Americans are not always the best or the brightest, we are not always right or respectful but, in our 238 years, we have done much to make this world a better place. And beleaguered, flawed, and imperfect though we may be, we are still a land of opportunity in which I firmly believe the majority of folk are kind, generous, honest, hardworking, and fair-minded. Even the ones who prefer Pepsi and the Rolling Stones.

The next time you start to post something online, ask yourself if it is potentially (or, perhaps, intentionally?) inflammatory. If it is, please consider posting Mr. Ashe’s quote instead so that each of us might be inspired to start where we are, use what we have, and do what we can to make a difference in a positive way.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Return of the Generation Gap—in the Grocery Aisle

Today's generation gap isn't centered around music (much to their chagrin, I quite like most of the bands my sons listen to); it's centered around food. In a recent survey done by The Institute of Grocery Distribution, statistics show that shoppers under 35 are twice as likely to want organic food as those over 35, and a third of them don't mind paying more for it. Those under 35 are also more likely to waste less food, cook from scratch, and base their food purchases on a company's reputation for social responsibility. 

Having read Michael Pollan's riveting and enlightening book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, my eyebrow inevitably quirks any time I read a product's proud proclamation as "Organic!!!" (though I've recently conceded that if I'm planning to eat the peel on a fruit or vegetable, perhaps it really is worth paying for the chance it might actually be pesticide-free). Meanwhile, my 23-year-old's silent stares of recrimination when he's with me in the produce aisle are such that—at least when he's around—I find myself picking up organic more and more. In fact, the changed eating habits of my three sons—all under 35— have changed my own grocery buying habits dramatically. Gone are the white bread, soda, chips, cold cuts, and sugary cereals they loved in their youth. Now they ask for brown rice, dried beans, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, whole grain pasta, and Brussels sprouts. Yes, Brussels sprouts.

How is it that a generation raised on Pop-Tarts, Red Bull, and sundry processed foods has suddenly discovered their inner Euell Gibbons? These are children who grew up with 2XLs and Furbies, not Easy-Bake Ovens—children who ate more meals in back seats than at dinner tables because their parents were always working or on the go. That 23-year-old who now sneers when I reach for sugar instead of raw honey was the "Taco Bell Kid" until his passion evolved from burritos to bicycles a few years back.

But all this purity is a good thing, surely—and not just for those farmers wily enough to grab on to a USDA label. (Go for it, guys; you farmers deserve any break you can get.) Certainly there's enough evidence now to convince us that homemade whole wheat bread is healthier than a loaf of Sunbeam, that snacking on a fresh apple from a local orchard is a better choice than French fries from a local McDonald's. And how can you fault a mom who works all day then comes home and willingly makes kale and goat cheese calzoneswith tomatoes and basil from a backyard garden, no lessinstead of whippin' it through the Pizza Hut drive-thru?

No, I'm quite willing to let the Millennials lord their superior nutritional standards over us Boomers, because while I will never feel the need to apologize over serving up a cake that started with a box from Duncan Hines, I readily admit that Happy Cow un-homogenized whole milk, with no additives, from [happy!] grass-fed cows, is significantly better than ye olde mass produced 2% and worth the price difference. Meanwhile, it's pressure (read: guilt) from my own 3 Millennials that has reduced my soft drink consumption to almost nil, my fast food meals to a minimum, and my love affair with white food to the occasional crush. For that, I credit them (and say a heartfelt thank you) for a healthier body and a hefty weight loss.

I'm not quite ready to jump on the tofu wagon or give up Coke completely, but if this generation wants to raise their own chickens, bake their own bread, grow their own fruits and vegetables or insist on buying what goes into their bodies from someone they know instead of from Monsanto, who are we to stand in their way?

Respecting those choices is the least we can do after raising them on Pop-Tarts and Tang.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Who Hasn't Ever Said That Word? PLENTY of Us!

NEW YORK (AP) — Paula Deen should hope for more fans like Jennifer Everett of Tyler, Texas, who carried a shopping bag filled with $53 worth of merchandise from the celebrity chef's Georgia store on Thursday. A day earlier, it was revealed that Deen admitted during questioning in a lawsuit that she had slurred blacks in the past. 
"Who hasn't ever said that word?" Everett said. "I don't think any less of her. She's super friendly. She's a warm person who wouldn't hurt a fly."*

I haven’t ever said that word, Jennifer—and I take monumental offense at your assumption that such a vile racial epithet might roll off people’s tongues like a benign adjective. Using the Lord’s name in vain or dropping the F-bomb is one thing; those unfortunate word choices speak to poor judgment, a bad day, or lousy manners. But referring to a fellow member of our human race by a hateful, derogatory term that is universally recognized as a slur is a choice, not an accident, and it speaks directly to contempt.

I find that word so offensive I could not even bring myself to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my children. Though I encouraged them to read that wonderful book for themselves when they were older, I simply could not say that word aloud—even within a literary context.

I have used it once in print—in a poem based on a conversation that left me staggered. If it is difficult to imagine any educated, ethical person willfully uttering that ugly word, it is impossible to imagine hearing it used against your own child. Reading this poem still brings tears to my eyes as I ache for the pain my friend suffered.


She is a gentle woman—pretty,
with a sweet smile that is honest and warm.
We would be friends if we had the time
but we don't and so we are 
barely more than acquaintances— 
except that she comforts my mother 
when I am not there, 
soothes her in the night,
wipes the oatmeal from her chin.
And because even though 
she has to do those things—it is her job—
she does not have to do them
with love, and so I love her.
I do not know her favorite color 
or her childhood heroes,
but I know she adores her children,
enjoys her job, and loves to laugh.
She is a loyal friend, busy mother,
with a beautiful son and compassionate heart.
I think of us as alike until she tells me a story one day
and I am aware that no matter how many tears 
I might shed for her pain, I can’t know her pain;
no one will ever call my child "nigger."

From She of the Rib (CRM Books, 2006)

No, Jennifer, every one has not ever said that word, and there is no apology—however heartfelt it may be—that can remove the stench from the tongues of those who have. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

When the Spirit Says "Shout!" . . .

For the last week or so, when I awaken in the morning, I am singing the Doxology. (Only in my head, thus far; not sure what my husband’s reaction would be if I were to start warbling in his ear at 6 AM!) That song is as familiar to me as my image in a mirror, but it’s never been a particular favorite. Suddenly, though, its words seem glorious and essential:
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!  
Praise Him, all creatures here below! 
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host! 
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
My communication with God has always been more about thanksgiving than petition. I frankly believe He gives us way more than we deserve, so I’m constantly saying thank you—for the incredibly beautiful tulips I saw in Chicago recently. . . for the fact that my sons have reached adulthood in one piece and without undue harm . . . for my comfortable home, good health, and beloved friends. I do ask for guidance on a regular basis, but I hold back on special requests—thinking, perhaps, we might get only so many in the course of a lifetime.

To suddenly wake daily with a praise song on my cerebral tongue is a new experience, though, and causes me to wonder what has triggered this need to more effusively praise my Lord. There’s been no miracle, no disaster, no upheaval or resolution. At this point in my life, one day is pretty much like the next, so why this mysterious flood of gratitude emanating, apparently, from my subconscious?

I wish I knew. Could it be simply another new milestone in being older and wiser? Thus far, aside from the incessant need for reading glasses and the inability to cram quite as much into my days, the positive aspects of being over 40 (okay, over 50) vastly outnumber the negative. Perhaps I’ve just finally become aware of how many blessings flow daily from the Lord into my life. The beautiful birds that gather outside my office window . . . the network of creative, funny, wonderful people with whom I get to interact every day . . . the fresh eggs and vegetables that result from my husband’s hobbies . . . the words I read and write that bring such pleasure to my soul . . .

Truly, nothing good in life happens of our own volition; to arise singing praises to God is as it should be. So I’m fine if my newly enlightened (for whatever reason) self keeps up the early morning exaltations; in fact, I may see if my subconscious can work in a little brass and percussion. After all, Psalm 150 says, “Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet . . . Praise Him with loud clanging cymbals . . . Praise ye the Lord!”

Selah! (And thank you to my son Jaron for his visual interpretation of my melodious dreams!)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

10 Ways to Make a Bad Day Better

My days have been pretty good here lately, but we all know those crummy ones roll around sooner or later. Don’t give in to them! The older I get, the more I realize we are very much the determiners of our own destiny—on a day-by-day basis, at least. We can choose how to react to less-than-perfect days, whether their badness comes in the form of weather, events, encounters, or the lack thereof, and by choosing NOT to let our happiness be derailed by some external force, we can salvage that day for good.

If your happy mood is about to be hit broadside, try one of these tips. Let me know how it goes!

  1. Take a 10-minute walk outdoors by yourself. Okay, so this might not be an option if it’s raining like crazy or there’s a blizzard in town but, otherwise, this is a terrific way to “push your reset button,” as my friend Pat used to say. Pay attention to detail: a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, an old guy walking his dog, a shopkeeper fixing a window display. The point is to realize what’s happening in your life is a tiny little speck in the great scheme of things. Whatever’s out of sync will pass.
  2.  Indulge in a treat that’s good and good for you. Chocolate milkshake, probably not so much, but a straight-from-paradise Honey Crisp apple or a banana and peanut butter sandwich? Maybe all that’s wrong is low blood sugar or the need for a caffeine fix. You’d be surprised how grumpy that can make you!
  3. Look for a gift. Not one topped with a bow, but one you’ve overlooked. Parking place at the front of the lane? Happy little bird singing outside your window? Your favorite song on the radio? I call those little presents from God. He knows when you’re in a rotten mood and he may not be able to orchestrate a lottery win or heal your plantar fasciitis, but pay attention and you’ll be amazed at how many times He tries to say, “Here, will this help?”
  4.  Focus on the least worst thing you’re dealing with. Yes, I’m fully aware I have an inner Pollyanna that annoys people to no end but, really, does it do any good to wallow in your misery? (Okay, sometimes a short pity party does help.) Skip past the empty bank account, the fight you had with your teenager, the fact that your mom is getting more and more forgetful, and dwell on  the nail you just broke. Will you die from that? No. Will you lose your job over that? No. Will said nail grow back? Yes. See? That's one thing that's not nearly as awful as it could be.
  5. Put things in perspective. I know, from where you sit at the moment, life looks pretty sorry. But switch views. Pretend you’re your 13-year-old son, or your 80-year-old neighbor, or the homeless guy on the corner, or Princess Kate. You might decide you like your life a lot more than you thought.
  6. Don’t be a Don’t-Bee; you be a Doo-Bee! Anybody remember the TV show, “Romper Room?” We’re never too old to take good advice: don’t be a Negative Nelly when you can be a Positive Pammy! Sometimes changing your mood is as easy as making up your mind to adjust your attitude.
  7.  Turn on your radio. Or your MP3, cell phone, CD player, or whatever is the handiest source of music. (Maybe  one of your coworkers will do an Elvis impression for you.) Music has an uncanny ability to immediately transport us to a different place and time, especially if it’s a song with fond memories attached. Music is the quickest path I know from crabby to happy (along with #9!).
  8. Find something to make you laugh. Go to YouTube and search for laughing babies or goofy animals. Revisit your email joke folder. (You have one of those, right?) Take a break to go read funny greeting cards. Pull up a comedy on Netflix. Not only will you feel better, you’ll add a few years to your life.
  9. Find something four-legged and furry. Okay, maybe if you’re a fan of reptiles, a snake can make you smile, but my money’s on mammals. I dare you to stay downtrodden while there’s a kitten in your lap, a dog grinning in your face, a meerkat peering up at you, or a horse nuzzling your neck. Animals = smiles.
  10. Do something for someone who’s not expecting it. Sometimes, reminding yourself that it’s not all about you can get you past those rough spots. Focusing on someone else will get your mind off your worries and doing something for someone else, well, that makes you feel good all over. How about putting quarters in a bunch of parking meters downtown, or buying a burger for the lady behind you in the drive-thru? I guarantee that if you surprise the tellers at your bank with a bag of donuts they will treat you like a hero, and if you take a couple of board games or a basketball to your local women’s shelter, you may turn your bad day into the best one ever.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Good gracious. Here it is two weeks into 2013 and, I swear, we were all in a snit about Y2K just yesterday. How time flies when we're all so busy trying to make a living, get dinner on the table, and find something decent to watch on TV!

My old year ended badly when a precious friend unexpectedly died. I'll feel her loss for a long time to come, but she would want me to move past my sadness and celebrate all that's good in life, so I'm going to try and focus on that.

There’s a lot to celebrate! First off, I finally finished the rewrite of a novel I've been working on for two solid years. Secondly, after a long, exhausting stretch of self-representation, I've signed with Hartline literary agent Diana Flegal, the warmest, bubbliest person I've encountered in a long time. We met this summer, clicked immediately, and I'm looking forward to her guidance as we take my career into the fiction arena. What a transition to go from poetry to prose! Index cards have become my new essential writing tool as I try to keep track of hair color, eye color, middle names, favorite games, and repetitive words—ten chapters out!

Speaking of games, that's my third—and biggest—piece of news. En route to fiction, I took time out for a nonfiction project that sort of fell into my lap: my newest book, THE ART OF STONE SKIPPING AND OTHER FUN OLD-TIME GAMES comes out February 1st from Imagine Publishing, an imprint of Charlesbridge Publishing. The first review is a good one, so I'm crossing my fingers and holding my breath. Of course, if it never sells a single copy, writing it was a great experience; I had an editorial dream team (thank you, Charlie Nurnberg and Kate Ritchey!), the graphic artists totally captured the spirit of the text (thank you, Todd Dakins and Melissa Gerber!), the research was fascinating (who knew there's a World Egg Throwing Federation?!), and my sales reps are awesome.

We Girls Raised in the South (better known as GRITS) are taught from our earliest days that it's bad manners to draw attention to oneself, but in today's publishing world, there's about a 6-week window that determines if a new book will flop or fly, so I'm asking—in my most ladylike way, of course—for your help in making the most of that window. STONE SKIPPING is a collection of instructions and variations on every kind of game you can think of—from scavenger hunts and shadow puppets to jacks and Johnny on the Pony—plus all sorts of fun history and trivia in between. It’s a wonderful resource for schools, libraries, youth groups, Scout groups, teachers, activity directors, and families. Check it out at,  at your favorite local bookstore, or at any of many online booksellers. If you think it sounds worthwhile, would you please spread the word to anyone you think might enjoy owning it or selling it? THE ART OF STONE SKIPPING AND OTHER FUN OLD-TIME GAMES is available in paperback ($14.95) and as an e-book ($9.99). Watch for it February 1st, pre-order it now, and if you're interested in doing a review, let me know and I'll get a copy in your hands.

I hope your year is off to a good start, too. Stay tuned; I have a feeling more great things are just around the pike!

P.S. If there’s a great bookstore, toy store, or gift shop in your town, ask them to contact me about a signing event!