Urban Presence

The Visitation Sisters of North Minneapolis model gentleness and humility while living as a spiritual presence in a marginalized urban community.

It looks like just another house on just another block in just another American neighborhood. Tidy hostas line the walkway to the front door, pretty wicker chairs are circled on the front porch, and the doorbell chimes in a familiar four-note melody.

The sweet-faced, gray-haired women who answer the door look familiar, too: They might be AARP members, someone’s great aunts, or even just friendly next-door neighbors to anyone in any city. They greet callers with warm smiles and understanding nods, sometimes dispense a lemon bar or a glass of water, and love to hear the news about who’s just had a new baby down the block or who’s in from out of town to visit relatives.

But this house sits in one of the most violent, poor, and crime-riddled neighborhoods in Minneapolis, and the six women in it are Visitation sisters living a monastic life in an inner-city setting. The monastery is housed in two typical neighborhood homes a block apart in the Near North area of Minneapolis, a neighborhood that, in crime maps of the city, has one of the highest concentrations of gunshots fired and violent crimes.

The sisters are there to live a spiritual life in an urban setting and to participate in a community of people who are often marginalized or overlooked.

They are, as their neighbors fondly call them, “nuns in the hood.”

Monastic life

Most monasteries are peaceful refuges, withdrawn from interruptions and distractions, city congestion, and, often times, other people. Monastics tend to renounce worldly goods and draw away from the secular world in order to embrace the spiritual one within their secluded cloisters.

This North Minneapolis monastery has its roots in 17th-century France, where St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal founded the Visitation order. The order takes its name from the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth and bases its tenets on the virtues of the Virgin making the visit: gentleness, simplicity, humility, patience, optimism, respect, and interiority. Salesian spirituality is based on de Sales’ belief that everyone is called to be holy, that relating to and helping others are devout callings, and that living daily life doing ordinary things can be passionately spiritual – without necessary withdrawing from the world.

There are 11 Visitation monasteries in the United States, and about half of them are traditional and contemplative. The order calls these monasteries the First Federation. Days are spent in scheduled private and group prayer, reading, religious study, and in domestic tasks such as gardening or baking. These monasteries are sometimes housed in stone edifices behind iron gates or in peaceful pastoral settings apart from cities or towns. The remaining five monasteries, the Second Federation, seek livelier, more constant interaction with their outside communities – like running schools. One of these five is the unique urban monastery in Minneapolis.

Before coming to Minneapolis in 1989, three sisters at the Visitation Academy of St. Lous devoted 10 years to prayer and reflection about what kind of meaningful work they might do. Sister Mary Frances Reis, who joined the other three by praying from her monastery in St. Paul and who now acts as community leader of the Minneapolis monastery, recalls often asking, “Lord, what would you have me do?” The answer, the four founding sisters came to believe, was not to run a treatment center or a school but to be a prayerful, spiritual presence in a marginalized community. “The answer,” Reis says, “was ‘I want you to go and live, and when the doorbell rings, you get your agenda.'”

The founding sisters proposed two ideas to the Second Federation leadership. One, says founding member Sister Mary Margaret, was “to do what existing monasteries do, and one was go out to the poor, marginalized, and stressed in the community.”

In 1988 the Second Federation leadership approved the latter, and the four founding sisters moved to Minnesota.

Living in an urban monastery

Many monastic contemplatives are engaged with their own rich spiritual lives that are, well, nearly silent. Not these nuns.

They blog. They tweet. They have a Facebook page. They post YouTube videos.

Committed to the goal of maintaining a prayerful, spiritual presence in their neighborhood, the nuns make themselves visible on social media, at community events, and in everyday interactions with their neighbors. They organize spiritual retreats for area women and coordinate scholarships to send children to Catholic Youth Camp, an overnight camp in northern Minnesota. They help social service organizations and volunteers connect with North Minneapolis families and people in need by “bridging” – linking services to people and linking those in need with those interested in helping.

But the two homes set a block apart are still a monastery. The nuns awake at 6 a.m. for an hour of prayer and meditation Then they come together at 7 for morning prayer, where neighbors can join them in chanting psalms and scripture readings. Eucharist is at 8, noon is midday prayer, 4:45 p.m. is evening prayer, and then more time for personal prayer before night prayer at 8:15 p.m.

A sign at the door lets visitors know when they may ring the bell and join the nuns in prayer or ask for help. The sisters say that these incursions to the monastery are not seen as disruptions but as opportunities to meet and welcome Christ. Sister Karen Mohan, a founding member of the monastery, calls those ringing doorbells “punctuation that prepares to meet Jesus.”

This blend of contemplation and engagement creates unique sort of monastic life that encourages seeing interruptions as invitations, and it follows the Salesian idea of seeking the presence of good in real persons with real needs.

A spiritual presence in the community

“Being intentional about prayer life goes with us to the door,” says Sister Katherine Mullin, vocations director, who grew up in Minneapolis and has been with the Visitation Monastery in North Minneapolis for 15 years, moving from the Visitation Monastery in St. Paul, which she entered in 1959. Contemplatives are trained in the transcendent, she says, cultivating solitary meditation and prayer while valuing deep inner personal awareness that hopefully manifests as stability and calm. The urban monastery is neither a retreat nor a mission, but a space of gentle spirituality and prayer that offers listening and reflection to neighbors who live in violence and hardship.

Today at the door it’s Justin, a blonde teenager who has been coming to the sisters since he was about 4 years old. He’s in need of “three eggs” – not two, not four – for an omelet. He sees a bowl set out on a table for a visitor. “Are those nuts?” he asks. Two of the sisters speak gently to him, and he gets a hug before one brings him into the kitchen. The hungry boy leaves carrying eggs and a bag of nuts.

A man stops by and asks for bus tokens so he can travel downtown to a hospital to offer reassurance to a young gunshot victim. The man and the nuns begin to talk, and soon he’s opening up about his marital troubles – his wife uses to many credit cards, and there’s a problem with her spending. The nuns listen and then pray with him.

Another man wants to share his thoughts on racial tensions in the city, including the July 2016 shooting of Philando Castile across the river and about six miles away in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul.

Sometimes the visitor at the door is new to the monastery. Many times it is an old friend – a new father that the sisters have known since he was 4 years old, a young teen who says “these women helped raise me,” a mother who has known the sisters for years.

“I heard about you,” says a first-time visitor. “You don’t have much, but you share what you’ve got.”

People come to the door for practical help, but they also come to talk, to pray, to open up about what is particularly hard about life that day. “It’s little things,” says Sister Mary Margaret. “But little things are really big things.” Treating each visitor with great respect, learning and honoring their life story, praying together, and very often, laughing together, even when the circumstances are hard – these “little things” are the essential components of the nuns’ Salesian spirituality.

The urban monastic approach the sisters practice is simply to be present. To live in the neighborhood, to be in the community with the neighbors, and to consider these interactions to be their work. Where some monasteries might bake bread or grow herbs or care for the sick or even teach school, these nuns make sacred ground in the inner city by being caring and gentle neighbors in a sometimes uncaring and violent part of town.

The needs of this community are daunting and urgent, and its pain is palpable. In May 2016, the fatal drive-by shooting of a woman sitting in her car made headlines. In July 2016, another drive-by killed one toddler and wounded another. Addiction, abuse, grinding poverty, and violence are not abstract concepts here but daily life challenges and gritty realities.

A friend of the sisters, Carolyn Brooks, says, “Having been born and raised here, I can say that it’s not like it used to be. When I hear about people killing and being killed – ” she pauses for a moment and wipes her eyes, and other visiting neighbors listening to her nod. “It used to be fists and yelling, but now it’s knives, guns, banging on doors at night, drive-bys.”

Balancing chaos and calm

This is not the environment that initially seems conducive to attempting to live an introspective life. But the sisters seem to transmute that chaos around them by treating each visitor who comes to the door with great respect and care, listening to their story, and responding to it with unconditional, nonjudgmental acceptance. “The people who come to the door are changing us,” says Sister Karen. “They reveal the face of Christ.”

However, “these women are no fools, they know what’s going on, they know what we face,” says a neighbor, Dianna Bady, a mother of a blended family of nine children. “These sisters are coming from a good place. They love us to death.”

The sisters do not have much to give – they can spare a bus token or a $10 gift card for the grocery store. Some days it feels frustrating to not have more to give, to not have more power to right the very large wrongs around them, and to have such human limitations of resources and time.

“Sometimes we are very stretched,” acknowledges Sister Katherine. “But isn’t everyone in the world?”

They set appropriate boundaries. The children of the neighborhood are always eager to come to the house with the kind ladies who share cookies and listen so calmly, but a houseful of children is far from peaceful. A creative solutions to prayer time was reached: A colorful windsock is hung outdoors whenever the sisters are free to talk, play, or offer snacks. When the windsock goes up, little people are at the door. Those relationships begin with preschoolers have lasted into adulthood, and now the children of children who visited the nuns are ringing the bell.

Many of the parents in the community are deeply appreciative. Over the years the nuns have worked with other social organizations and individuals to help get services and goods to families in needs.

For the mothers, the nuns created a Mother’s Day gift to the community: a day-long women’s retreat that offers a chance for some 50 neighborhood women – Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and African American – to get to know each other over a meal and a day of talking and sharing.

“We realized that the neighbors trusted us, but not each other,” says Sister Katherine. “We thought if they could just get together and meet each other…”

Dianna nods. “Growing up as an African American, you’re not as trusting of people. If it wasn’t for you [the sisters], we wouldn’t know each other.”

A vision for the future

Slowly, the original four founding sisters grew to six, and then, recently, seven.

Brenda Lisenby was a Baptist missionary, moving between Hong Kong and China for 20 years before coming to the Minneapolis Visitation Monastery in 2014 as a monastic immersion experience resident. Some monasteries offer such residencies to laypeople as ways to learn about the order or live the contemplative life for a short period of time. Last May Brenda entered the novitiate to being a two-year formation. At the end of those two years, she will make first profession and then become a vowed sister.

Her days follow the regimen of contemplation and prayer as the rest of the sisters, but she particularly focuses on reading and studying for “spiritual formation” – spiritual education, deepening, and growth. She devotes morning hours to prayer and reflection, but then heads downstairs “to see what needs doing.” Today she answers to the door to a young man needing something to eat and bus tokens. She fixes him a sandwich, gets him his tokens, and talks with him while he eats.

“I think that is the beauty of living in a real house, not a traditional monastic building,” says Brenda. “There is no institutional feel, only the welcome a front porch, a backyard, a home garden. It is not intimidating and allows us to welcome those who might never feel comfortable in a traditional monastic setting.”

An urban monastery can combine the stability and balance of a monastic life with the social action and ministry of apostolic life, and this blend intrigues her. “I value hospitality and inclusiveness,” says Brenda. “What I value about this urban monastery is the integration of contemplative prayer and action. Because we are not cloistered in the traditional sense – our monastery garden being in the neighborhood – we are able to be present to our neighbors and share our home and prayer with them. Because we are not living behind walls, we are approachable, accessible, and only a doorbell ring away.” Further, on the monastery’s website, she writes, “I am thinking that monastic communities of the 21st century will bear little resemblance to the monastic communities of [early] Christendom. Even tradition apostolic communities are looking for new ways to be community and new ways of belonging that opens the doors for a more ecumenical inclusiveness.”

The 27-year-old Minneapolis Visitation Monastery is currently updating it’s long-range plan, which they do every three years. Rather than imposing actions on the monastery from the top down, the sisters are interviewing their constituents – their neighbors – to find out what they need, which monastery activities help them most, and what else they require. The monastery’s back-to-school party, where children fill backpacks with donated school supplies, is highly praised because it allows families to stretch exhausted resources to provide for their children. Also popular is a Christmas program in which the sisters have adults fill out which lists, share them with local donor organization, and then help distribute the goods back to the families.

The “nuns in the hood” speak warmly about how the community has changed and enriched them. But even the youngest of the neighbors recognize the effect on the community of proximity to lives lived in quiet contemplation and spirituality.

Sister Mary Margeret tells a story of one day when she was swinging outside with a very young boy from the neighborhood. “When you move…” he bagan.

“Oh, we’re not moving. We are here to stay.”

“When you move,” he began again.

And again she reassured him that the sisters were not going to move away.

“When you move,” he said patiently, and Sister Mary Margaret then decided to let him speak. “When you move, things will have been better because you were here.”

This article ran in the January 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic

Art: Revealing the Us In The Other

It is not a passive thing to sit in the audience. It is also not a safe thing.

We file in, avoiding eye contact and clutching tickets. We sort ourselves into aisles that are lettered and numbered in illogical fashion, we search for but can’t spell mezzanine, and we politely share the armrests as though nothing transformative is about to happen and as if we will emerge in two hours utterly unscathed.

But we were wrong.

When the curtain rises or the dancer enters or the baton drops or the singer exhales – if it is good art, and heck, sometimes even if it is bad art – the cacaphony of the disparate lives of 200 or 400 or 1,200 people in the audience is stilled. Some common human ground is found and tilled and made fertile, and our hearts are laid bare to each other and to ourselves.

We can know nothing about people, yet when we listen to the rise and fall of their music, some visceral place in them touches a visceral place in us. Without living another life, we come to know another life. We believe that we are unique, that we are the first generation to be outraged by injustice or feel true passion, but art reveals the artifice in that sort of thinking. We learn that we share the ages, we share the planet and we are not the only ones who have suffered great loss or love to tap dance.

It would be rude to look a stranger in the eye and ask to see his soul. But, from the audience, we can clearly see it.

Art engenders empathy. In its beauty and its ugliness, art reveals what it is to be humane. Art bypasses small talk and inserts us into the hearts and minds of those whom we might otherwise overlook. Art reveals the us in the other. Art has the profound power to show us we are not alone.

I teach a course in writing about the arts. I bring students to galleries, the ballet, the symphony, the theatre, and the opera. Even if their early education has been excellent, this is often their first Vivaldi and Shepard and Balanchine and Pollock. First, we read good critical writing about the art form of the week. Then, we go backstage, to rehearsal or to the studio to learn that art is made with effort and deliberation, that a ballerina’s feet are covered in calluses, and that a good cello costs as much as a small house. Finally, they dress in carefully pressed dresses and badly chosen ties, attend the performance, and write a critical review, à la Roger Ebert.

They learn that “I didn’t like it” does not constitute insight. They learn that claims should be backed up with logic. They learn to look up rather than guess how to spell Tchaikovsky, to actually read the program notes and to stop dangling their participles. They learn that “good” is not a precise adjective and that the world “relatable” sets my teeth on edge. And, as valuable as it is to learn how to write a coherent sentence that communicates a clear idea, they learn a life lesson that is not at all about writing. They tell me about it in their final essay in the course.

“Art takes us out of our comfort zones into a world we didn’t even know existed.”

“While the media is telling us what to think, artists guide us to think in a different way.”

“This was my first symphony. It will not be my last.”

“Covering art is not just letting people know when some art gallery opens, but letting people know that gallery is a glimpse into the world around us, as well as our own identities.”

“Here I was, a sports writer in the land of violas and pirouettes. … It was my growth mentally as a person that was tested here, wrapping my brain around the arts, beautiful creations that I had never been exposed to, and making my own sense out of them. I believe that I not only survived, but learned to thrive and embrace a world, once thought to be another dimension by me, as my own.”

The formation of the mind and heart of students is one of five themes that shaped the university’s strategic plan – a plan that envisions Marquette as a place where students examine the purpose of their lives in the context of a world larger than their own backyard.

Yet how can students come to understand what is beyond their own experience? A student can’t be lectured into becoming a socially conscious and humane professional. A compassionate heart and soul can’t be formed on command.

But students can make and witness art. They can stand on the stage and sit in the audience. Even if they don’t speak the language, they can see the canvas and hear the music, and there, souls and hearts speak to each other without boundaries.

It can be a brave thing to sit in an audience. It requires nothing less than being fully human. We already know how to understand each other. From the audience, we can clearly see it.

Remembering Roger Ebert

First Published in U.S. Catholic, August 2017

He was perhaps the most beloved American film critic ever, but that is not what Roger Ebert thought he wanted to be.

The way Ebert tells it, he imagined a career as a columnist, something along the lines of being a Mike Royko. Instead, Ebert’s boss at the Chicago Sun-Times, Bob Zonka, announced in 1967 that Ebert would replace the paper’s retiring film critic, Eleanor Keen. Ebert’s life course was set. 

From that day until his death in 2013 of cancer, Ebert filed review after review and book after book, relentlessly chronicling American film making over six decades. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his film reviews of 1974, a year that included Chinatown, The Godfather II, and The Great Gatsby, of which he wrote, “It would take about the same time to read Fitzgerald’s novel as to view this movie—and that’s what I’d recommend.” It was also the year of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which earned this bon mot: “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made.”

His 1994 review of North is legendary, not only for its repetition but for its marked absence of commas: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.” He suffered no fools, but somehow, his prose never felt precisely mean. He appeared to love what film could be, could do, and could say, and when he was disappointed by a script or a director, his was the crestfallen outrage of an 11th-grade English teacher facing a poor performance by a promising student. About the massacre at The Dark Knight Rises premiere in Aurora, Colorado, in his Movie Yearbook 2013, he wrote, “The decay of standards in movies may be related to the decay of standards in our society. I can’t prove it. But I fear it.”  

Starting in 1975, he and Gene Siskal co-hosted public television’s Sneak Previews, a program of film reviews that rendered famous their trademarked phrase “Two thumbs up!” They moved to commercial television in 1982 and the program name changed to At The Movies with Gene Siskal and Roger Ebert. Their on-air arguments were hilarious master classes in critical thinking about media and storytelling. They freely disagreed and seemed to genuinely respect each other’s perspectives—a democratic quality much missed in current politics and media. After Siskal’s death in 1999, the program continued on with lesser sparring companions, and once Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, he left the show in the hands of other hosts in 2006.  

Ebert’s were the go-to reviews for film, and his annual published collections—and his not-to-be-missed compilations of his most scathing evaluations of dreadful movies—were beloved. His writing was first person and often autobiographical, yet in unassuming and rather modest ways. As his thyroid cancer treatment and surgeries robbed him of his ability to speak, he turned to the keyboard and journaled online to a growing audience of newcomers to his famous wit and his fearless and keen-eyed commentary on popular culture. 

In these blogs and in his autobiography, Life Itself (also the name of a documentary on Ebert), he is at his most magnetic and satisfying. His storytelling is, in turns, funny, poignant, and telling. His thinking is well-structured, clear, level-headed, and logical. Like a good friend, he offers the gift of transparency about family difficulties, his membership in Alcoholics Anonymous (he stopped drinking in 1979), his marriage at the age of 50 to the great love of his life, Chaz, and the health challenges he faced in the last years of his life. 

He was raised Catholic, attended Catholic grade school, and brought that tradition and sensibility to his work. His essay, “How I Believe in God,” is a delightful memoir of a second grader’s adventures in spirituality and walks through his lifetime of seeking answers to impossible questions. His conclusion in 2009, four years before his death: “I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.”

I read Ebert as a fan and as a dazzled fellow writer. His words had that marvelous ease on the page that comes only from a fine mind, applied with integrity and intention. Reading Ebert, I felt I was in the company of a truly decent human being. I didn’t have to always agree with him to enjoy my time with his words. He was no one’s sycophant and I doubt he would have tolerated one. His writing was a joy because he was so at home with himself while he wrote it—he was unapologetically Ebert, and he knew himself well. 

That is the task of life, it seems to me—to fully grow one’s self up, from whatever soil in which we found ourselves planted, into actual maturity. Everyone ages. Not everyone matures. 

Over the years, Ebert did. His early work didn’t feel nascent; it was as open and frank as his latter reviews. But his person, that first person in his work, was someone he respected—hence, so did his readers. He thought deeply about his topics, and neither his logic nor his writing were sloppy. He was his own life project and he took responsibility and care with it. He made himself into a good man. He didn’t lecture readers about this, but it was right there, in every word.

I didn’t read him (and read him still; his ongoing website of greatest hits is a comfort) just for the thumbs up or thumbs down of film reviewing—any old snark can pen a sarcastic insult and get Yelped. I read him for the purity of Roger in his words. That is the writer’s great task, and it takes more skill and bravery than many possess: be yourself on the page. For that to work, you must first be someone interesting and worth knowing. Ebert was both, and he let his readers get to know him.

He was a master. As a professor, I use his writing to teach students, not only those studying how to write arts criticism, but those studying, you know, life. 

In 2006, Ebert wrote about Crash, “I believe that occasionally a film comes along that can have an influence for the better, and maybe even change us a little.” He made us believe that about film, and art, too. And about ourselves.

Women’s Work

A cancelled series reveal the fight for women’s pay equality is still underway.

Once upon a time, in 1969, women weren’t “allowed” to wear slacks at the office. This wasn’t for modesty – miniskirts and tight dresses were fine, 9-5. The dress code was to keep gender difference clearly delineated, as in the classic insult to assertive wives: “She wears the pants in that family.” When the chino ceiling finally cracked in office buildings across America, women could wear trousers in public, but only if they also wore a matching jacket. The female pantsuit was born.

In the 1960s women were paid roughly half of what men earned, about 59 cents for every dollar a man took home. Fifty years later, women now earn 78 cents on the male dollar, so we’ve got that going for us. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the rate of approaching pay equity has actually slowed in recent years, and 2152 is projected as the year when men and women will finally receive equal pay for equal work.

That means it will take another 135 years and five more generations of women before women and men earn equal wages. That’s more than 200 years after the National War Labor Board encouraged employers to pay women equitably in 1942 and almost 200 years after the Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1963.

In short, the gender wage gap is a rivetingly current issue, affecting women right now and into the far, far future. And it’s just one reason for the popularity of Amazon’s streaming series released in late October, Good Girls Revolt.

Like Mad Men, the period drama of advertising life in the ’60s, Good Girls Revolt is an engrossing (and educational) bit of time travel back to the world of news magazines in New York. The female researchers and male reporters at News of the Week, a thinly disguised Newsweek magazine, are immersed in the leading stories of the day: Vietnam, the Black Panther movement, women’s rights. And oh, the boots, the granny dresses, the wire-rimmed glasses, the fringed leather vests. The lava lamps, the rock concert posters, the vinyl albums playing on stereos, the utter lack of earbuds. The dependence on telephones that were tethered to cords and the lack of Google. the clack of typewriters on paper and the magazine design that uses a light table and no Photoshop.

The magazine staff is made up of male reporters who get bylines and twice the pay and female researchers who sometimes write stories without any credit and who come when summoned: “Go get your girl.” A long-time researcher tells a new hire: “They’re reporters, we’re researchers. We investigate and write files for the reporters, they do a pass on them, put their hands on them, and then the stories go to press.”

Researcher Patti Robinson wears long hair and short skirts, is tuned in to the political and musical climate of the ’60s, and has more passion for her job than does her reporter, Doug Rhodes. A fellow researcher, Jane Hollander, is cracklingly competent, but endures lunches with her wealthy father who wants her to work at a law firm where she might meet “more suitable” men, marry, and stop working. A third researcher, Cindy Reston, is trapped in a marriage with a controlling husband who pokes a hole in her diaphragm, hoping she’ll get pregnant and stay home.

Female applicants for the researcher job are asked for their waist measurement while male reporters hoot in the background. When a researcher scores a tough interview, her male coworkers say, “Atta girl, Patti” or, “You’re pretty cute when you’ve got a scoop.” At the end of a business meeting, an editor asks a researcher, “Young lady, can you get me a cup of coffee?” At a consciousness-raising meeting of the nascent Second Wave women’s movement, a leader asks, “How many of you have ever slept with your boss?” and almost all the women present raise their hands.

What Good Girls Revolt is so very, very good at is capturing the subtle, nuanced, often benevolent sexism of its age – and helping us recognize its iterations in our current historic moment. Good Girls Revolt makes current workplace discrimination visible (sometimes for the first time, according to fan blogs) to millenials who might have felt theirs is a world in which feminism is no longer relevant and activism for women’s rights no longer needed.

The series is a hit, with glowing reviews, high online ratings, and lively industry buzz. But in an ironic twist that could be a Good Girls Revolt plotline, the show about gender discrimination was just cancelled by Amazon. The Atlantic called the cancellation “infuriating” and an example of male-only decision-making that might have been reversed if women were present at the conference table.

This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Who Runs The World?

In CBS drama Madam Secretary, patriarchy matters a little less.

Madam Secretary (CBS, in its third season) breaks bold new ground in media portrayals of women leaders: Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord’s friends, family, colleagues, and even the President of the United States treat her as if, in fact, she can lead.

On television and in film, when women are running corporations or countries, they are often portrayed in ways that reinforce tired stereotypes and fears bout female leadership. Women in power are cast as unnatural, devious villains (Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes in Damages) or unnatural icy machines (Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in House of Cards) or unnatural, brittle witches (Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada).

Unnatural is the key word. The ability co command authority – and other people – is typically treated in media as something outside of the female experience.

To lead, we’re told, female characters must abandon themselves as women, eschew friendship and love, and become humorless machines who live in uncomfortably tight skirts and painfully high heels (even when home feeding their cats). When shown with children, they are inept and clumsy. When shown with men, they are rapacious or bored. The treat colleagues and coworkers and competitors and employ unreasonable and inefficient management techniques, like murder and blackmail. This is a woman’s choice, at least in the medias’s usual ham-fisted interpretation of human relationships: Professional achievement requires reversing the “natural” feminine attributes of nurturance and caretaking, adopting a frozen exterior, and skirting perilously close to being a sociopath.

Enter Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), whom we meet while she is cannily unmasking a student’s excuses about an assignment. She leaves the young man’s dignity intact, but her high expectations for his performance are unequivocal. Later, while she is mucking out a stall and wearing messy braids (no high heels in a horse barn), the president arrives in a motorcade. They worked together at the CIA, where he admired her ethics, original thinking, and patriotic scruples, and he now wants her as Secretary of State.

McCord manages her staff, her boss’ expectations, her and her peers from around the world with a lively mix of intelligence, wit, humanity, and charm. Oh, and she is utterly capable of the job. She believes in the agency and ability of the people she helps govern. She wrestles with recalcitrant ambassadors with compassion and firmness. She is facile with Middle Eastern history and customs and speaks several languages. She Skypes with world leaders, treats people of all backgrounds with respect, and is simultaneously eloquent and down-to-earth. She deals with a Cabinet of mostly men, some of whom can be patronizing.

Wonderfully, Madam Secretary does not lean on the weary plot device of men being annoyed at finding women in the workplace, as if misogyny was news. It may be to some men, but it’s a fact of life to women, who every day must find ways over, under, around, or through persistent sexism. Patriarchy is entrenched and commonly encountered by most women in almost every area of life. To treat patriarchy as if it as aberrant occurrence that can be overcome by simply proving your worth in the workplace minimizes its insidious effects on the everyday lives of men and women. Patriarchy is far more prevalent and complex than that.

The most interesting thing about being Secretary of State is not getting a boy down the hall to like you. McCord grapples with demanding and oppositional agendas of nations small and large – which include the very real kinds of sexism that get women harmed and killed – in one of the most intriguing jobs on the planet. By taking that position, Madam Secretary helps patriarchy matter just a little less.

Madam Secretary also avoids clichéd family plot lines. Media children of strong women are often portrayed as bratty and pouty, acting out because if mom is out there in the world, surely she is failing significantly at home. But McCord is warm, loving, and deeply engaged with her three children, who are not drawn as sickeningly cutesy, idiotic teens or charmless snarks. Her son is an anarchist, and his parents give him room for his views and opinions; one daughter leaves college before graduation, but her life is not ruined, and she begins to find her own way; and the other is a fashion maven who wants to be a stylist to the stars. They are proud of their mother, as they should be.

Media husbands often act emasculated by their wife carrying a briefcase, can’t change a diaper or cook mac and cheese, and are plunged into depressed loneliness if left alone for an evening. Not Elizabeth McCord’s husband. Henry McCord (Tim Daly) tosses the parenting ball back and forth with his wife with competence and good humor. In a bustling family kitchen one morning, he reminds his three children that their mother has to get out the door to “go save the world.” He delivers the line with no rancor, jealously, or sarcasm. That’s actually her job, and he gets out of her way so she can do it.

Travel and work demands do strain their time together, and they do experience conflict, but they talk about it intelligently and respectfully. They praise each other in public and in private and they truly admire each other. They flirt, laugh, tease, and annoy each other. They appear functional. This is so uncommon among media marriages that it is striking.

Media stories aren’t reality, but they are the narratives that we insist on telling ourselves. Finally we have begun to tell ourselves that 50 percent of the world can lead at the office, too. High time. Madam Secretary is smart, funny, instructive, and telling. Brava.

This article ran in the June 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Breakup Joints

Anyone can think of a romantic spot to dine on Valentine’s Day, but finding the right restaurant to leave your lover is another story


I’M NOT A GOOD dumper. I have no style. Well, at least not the kind of style you might expect from a woman who has had as many husbands as you have fingers on your right hand.

When it is time for me to check out of a relationship, I am gone. Not always gracefully, not always politely, but gone. I am not inclined to hang around for weeks planning a dramatic exit.

Nevertheless, I can certainly make a case for leaving a man with a lingering memory of me in black velvet and pearls, leaning over the candlelight to whisper, “This is our last night together, my darling—savor every moment.” For one thing, a person probably gets better divorce settlements this way.

Instead, I burn into his brain forever as wearing an oversized T-shirt and gym socks, standing in the week low of the Snoopy nightlight at 3 a.m. screaming: “You left the seat up for the last time, Buster! You’re outta here!”

An old movie with that suave French guy in it taught me the proper way for a gentleman to break the bad news to a lady. He buys her jewelry, gives it to her over an expensive dinner at the swankiest joint in town, and tells her with a catch in his voice that she is too good for him—the theory being that she won’t dare shriek at him in an elegant restaurant, so he gets to sneak away unscathed.

Of course, that leading man never dated a girl with an Irish temper, or he would’ve been wearing his pasta for a tie. Still, breaking the bad news over dinner has its strong points as a method. It seems civilized, adult, and somewhat elegant. And it has an air of well-considered finality to it, as opposed to the strategy of hopping out of a moving car 400 miles from home in a snit, which pretty much forces you to have an anti-climactic reunion 10 minutes later so you don’t have to walk home.

To save yourself humiliation, then, while purposely inflicting it on someone else, consider the following guide to untying the knot while dining in public:

  • Do not go to your favorite restaurant. You will never be able to return there without weeping into your arugula.
  • Absolutely, positively, pick up the tab. She who dumps must pay.
  • Avoid vegetarian restaurants. Vegans are so sensitive, they will side the underdog and glare you throughout dinner.
  • Get a table by the bathroom in case you start crying.
  • Get a table by the back door in case he starts crying.

So, where do you go to do the dirty deed? Here are a few restaurant recommendations for the big chill.

If he is likely to make a scene, try the Black Forest Inn. It’s dark and noisy enough to disguise the histrionics, and after he storms out you can fill up on comfort food like bratwurst and apple strudel. The live jazz at Café Luxembourg can also mask a fight, and if the accusatory tone of the conversation keeps you nodding your head (“Yes, I was a jerk back then”), it’ll just look like you are in the groove. At the Café Un Deux Trois, order steak tartare—it’s hard to hurl across the table. If you throw in the towel at the California Café, you can console yourself with an immediate megamall shopping spree.

Avoid breaking up a carousel, the restaurant at the top of the St. Paul Radisson. It’s too much of a bummer to get dumped at a place where people are regularly proposed to, and besides, the darn place revolves so much that it’s a tricky place to make a smooth exit—the landmarks keep shifting. Pronto serves desserts deliciously crowned with foot-high needles of caramelized sugar. Dramatic looking, yes, but it’s probably wiser to order gelato, lest ye be skewered during your closing argument. The baguettes at Chez Collette taste great, but when you bite into them they snap, crackle, pop, and rain down your dress—adorable on the first date, but ridiculous-looking during a breakup.

Order the flaming specialties at Christos or Nicklow’s, and when the waiters yell “Oopa!” you can segue smoothly into “Just like us, baby—up in flames.” About the worst damage you can do at the Malt Shop is to shoot drinking-straw wrappers at each other. If you’re really thinking ahead, you’ll dump him at a single’s hangout like Lord Fletcher’s, and find another date before you get to the door. If you need enough time to blame him for every disappointment you’ve experienced since birth, go to Goodfellows, where everyone lingers, anyway. At the Hunan Garden, wait until he goes to the restroom and then tell the waitress he wants his Szechuan beef really hot. At Kabuki, you can get your own private rice paper-walled room to throw a tantrum in, but when you leave you have to hop on one foot to put your shoes back on, which rather spoils the effect. If all else fails, try a breakup by beef—after a few pounds of red meat at Murray’s, Morton’s, or Manny’s, he will be moving so slowly you can be on the freeway before he knows what hit him.

But perhaps the best place in town to break up is at the St. Paul Grill. Sit in a booth for privacy. Stare out the window at Rice Park while looking morose and mysterious. Drown your sorrows in terrific food and chocolate. And come back often to pout and mope.

Hey, breaking up is hard to do, especially around February 14. You have my sympathy. Over the years, I have been divorced on Christmas, rejected on my birthday, dumped on the first anniversary, and made into a basket case on Easter.

So what am I doing on Valentine’s Day? Eating in.


This appeared in Minnesota Monthly, February 1997, pp. 28-29.



Power on the Podium

Leonard Bernstein once warned Eiji Oue: “Keep conducting that way and you’ll die of exhaustion”

THIS PAST AUGUST, Hiroshima native Eiji Oue guest conducted seven Minnesota Orchestra musicians in Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. The performance so stunned the audience that one musician was moved to visible tears, a percussionist gushed to performers “You’re all my heroes!,” and Libor Pesek, another Sommerfest conductor, announced it was the greatest conducting he had ever seen.

The Minnesota Orchestra wants to play under Eiji Oue (say it A.G. OH-way). And if some orchestra management types around the country were surprised by the winter announcement that the relatively unknown music director of the Erie Philharmonic was picked to succeed Edo de Waart, the musicians themselves don’t much care. They’d play their hearts out for him, and they can hardly wait until he gets here in September 1995 (this March 2-4 he will guest conduct again).

Your announcement speech was very charming.

Thank you. Everything is very exciting here—the musicians, the snow. I’m excited about meeting you!

Oh, everyone is.

When I was here, I conducted seven people, but the whole orchestra came to watch, cheering. One musician came to me and said he had been here eighteen years but had never seen this much excitement from his colleagues. That comes from the music and the musicians—not just me. I’m only one piece of the puzzle.

But aren’t you supposed to act like you’re the whole puzzle, if you’re a conductor?

Well, some do, but they shall remain nameless! This orchestra is one of the top ten in the country, and I believe even better than that. People can’t judge, keeping it here in town. It needs to be on the road, needs the reaction from New York and Boston and other audiences. We’ll be the name care of Minnesota, in the state, the nation, internationally!

Will that be difficult?

If Prince—or however he pronounces his name now—came here every week for fifteen weeks, do you think he could fill the house? We have to provide music to the community every week, but we can do it.

Were you born this enthusiastic?

I credit my parents and my teachers for everything I am now. My mother wanted me to try Brussels sprouts. I did not like them! The next day, she chopped them into small things I couldn’t identify and made soup. I thought the soup was great; she said, “It’s Brussels sprouts!” She said I don’t have to like everything, but I have to try.

You started to play the piano when you were four.

My parents thought, that or fishing. Fishing is dangerous—somebody would have to be with me. Playing piano, my mother and father could be anywhere in the house and know I’m fine.

My piano teacher is the most amazing lady I ever met in my life. She did not teach me how to play, she taught me how to listen. She was so far ahead of her time.

When Lenny met her, he told me, “No wonder. You had the best teacher in the world.”

Lenny. As in Bernstein.

At Tanglewood in 1978, I was a very serious student, playing the piano, my eyes on the music. This noisy group came to see us. One sat down by me. I waved him away with his smelly cigarette. Later, he was introduced: Maestro Leonard Bernstein. I thought, Oh my God…

But he had asked to see me conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in a later class. It begins with a big fanfare, then—STOP! I shook up and down, making big motions, very carried away. Dahhhhh da da da dump bum BOOM! Bernstein came out of his chair behind me and said “Wow!”

I didn’t hear him, I was sweating, conducting. He stopped the pianist; I didn’t hear him, I kept conducting. Then I noticed—oh, the music is not there! He came to the podium and asked how many times I’d conducted this. “First time,” I said. Very quietly, just so I could hear, he whispered: “If you keep conducting this way, you’ll die of exhaustion!”

You played West Side Story on the piano with Bernstein.

On the same bench. I play the top, he plays the bottom. Pretty soon, he is playing a little of the top. Then, he is playing more of the top. Then, I am off the bench!

He took over.

Not very often…he never told me what to conduct. On his last trip with the London Symphony, I was first on the program, and he asked what I wanted to do. I thought maybe a Beethoven symphony, perhaps an overture. For the first time in all those years, he seemed to be hinting that something was just not right with that. I said, “Maybe Mozart?” Ah, something is still not quite right. Then I said, “How about West Side Story?” “Now that’s a good idea,” he said. “And maybe Candide?” “Another good idea!” that’s the only time he ever directed me, even a little bit. It was the last live performance of his own music he heard.

You conduct scores from memory.

Well, I have to look at them first.

Entire scores?

What if I turned the page wrong?

This appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine in March, 1994.

Have Pie, Will Travel

I COLLECT excellent pie-eating experiences the way some people collect Fiestaware. Deep in the dark winter months when no local fresh fruit is in season, I stare into the fire and dream, not of loves long lost, but of that slab of cherry perfection I consumed seven years ago in a tiny town somewhere between Rochester and Iowa.

My ideal pie is a rustic one. Not for me those anemic, perfectionist crusts that speak of skill in the kitchen but deliver little satisfaction per bite. A crust should reveal the elbow grease that went into it. Brushed with egg white and crystalized with sugar, the top crust should stand up to over-baked fruit bubbling up through its pierced pastry. The bottom crust should make a satisfying thunk as my fork breaks through it. And never should a pie be refrigerated, microwaved, or minimized with ice cream.

One of the mysterious truths about great pie is that you have to go to an out-of-the-way small town to get it. Once you’re on Main Street, you have to ask some old farmer wearing a cap with ear flaps where to go for pie. Believe me, he’ll know.

About a year ago, I undertook a vision quest to find the best pie around. I started at the legendary Norske Nook in Osseo, Wisconsin, where the waitresses wear Scandinavian dirndls and everything is rosemaled. Nook founder Helen Myhre says the first step to making a perfect pie is to buy a pig—home-rendered lard is her secret ingredient. I try not to think about this as we order lots of pie. My son, the expert on banana cream, says it’s the best he’s ever had. But I am mildly disappointed. The delicate crust is thin enough to inspire envy in any lefse-maker, but it makes me wistful for more substance. The thunk factor.

Weeks later, I load the car and bring my son to school in Iowa. I stop in Clear Lake, a farming town with baskets of flowers hanging from the street lights and an old-fashioned band shell in the park. At the Linden’s House Sandbar Restaurant—a bar added onto a delightful Victorian house—I order peach pie. The crust is pale and not buttery, but wonderfully flaky and light. The peaches are gems: truly ripe, not mushy, and tart and sweet in the same mouthful.

After a week or two of dieting, I take a friend’s recommendation and head for Jerry’s Other Place in Austin, Minnesota. Jerry’s does a brisk lunch business and has a case full of pies topped with mile-high meringue. To me, cream pie is pudding on graham crackers. I want crust, so I order pecan. It’s a respectable piece of pie, but not the stuff of which daydreams are made. My husband, Bill, raves about the lemon, so I steal a bite, and agree that the filling is satisfyingly smooth.

We head west to Trumble’s in Albert Lea. Twin dessert cases flank the entrance and revolving slices of pie beckon. The cherry pie has an enticing-looking sugary crust, but the filling is too jelly-like and the crust overly brown. Bill has another slice of lemon, which has a nice citrusy snap to the filling and meringue that is exceptionally creamy. We strike up a conversation with a fellow diner, and when Bill mentions we’re on a pie mission, she tells us to stop in Owatonna.

“Do we have to eat more pie today?” Bill whines.

We enter Owatonna on Broadway and drive to the charming town square. Across the street is the stunningly beautiful National Farmer’s Bank (now Norwest Bank) building designed by Louis A. Sullivan in 1906. Our destination, The Kitchen, is just down the street. Ruffled curtains trim the windows where diners and passersby wave back and forth at each other. Along with pie, there is green Jell-O in the pie case, which makes me hopeful.

“The ice cream pie is good,” says our waitress.

“That’s ice cream,” I say, grumpily. “That’s not pie.”

She raises one manicured eyebrow and brings me a slice of the poetically named “Fruits of Nature.” It has a terrific, flaky, thick-but-not-too-thick crust. Nature’s fruits turn out to be fresh strawberries, blackberries, and apples. I eat every speck of crust, even the very edges. The crust of Bill’s apple pie shows careful handiwork on its fluted edge, the apples are thin-sliced the way he likes them, and there is just enough cinnamon in the filling. We are happy pie eaters.

I continue my pie hunt, this time heading north. Existing 35W at Rush City, I find Historic Grant House, a vintage hotel and restaurant with floral wallpaper and golden woodwork. Two regulars don’t even give the waitress their order—she sees them arrive and pops out of the kitchen with plates of the meat loaf special. She confesses that some of their pie is homemade and is not. I have some that is: an exceptionally buttery-tasting crust that surpasses its canned-tasting filling.

I push north. A few weeks ago, I received a call from my friend Mary, describing herself as happily “pie-filled.” She told me to stop at the Scenic Café on Highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors. “Incredible!” she promises.

I arrive. The Scenic is on the left, Lake Superior is on the right, and the parking lot is empty. But it is mid-day, mid-week. The place is low and long, paneled in pine, with lace-curtained windows framing the lake view. A man standing behind the cash register is wearing a tall chef’s hat. The blackboard advertises Mediterranean Vegetarian Ragout and a soup called Dutch Wild Rice Salmon with Toothsome Mushrooms. I wonder if the guy in the chef’s hat knows he’s on Highway 61, 13 miles out of Duluth. I have a fine chicken breast with apple chutney, followed by blackberry peach pie.

My pie arrives still steaming from the oven—a handsome, dense wedge that you could lift with one hand and take bites out of like an apple. The filling is a good two inches thick, the pastry crusted with sugar. The crust is pale gold, the edge fluted. The peaches and blackberries are tart and rich, not overwhelmed with sugar or corn starch, just left on their own to boil up their own sweetness. At that moment, it is the best pie I have had in my life. I catch the eye of the guy in the chef’s hat. I nod my head and smile. He smiles back, and retreats into the kitchen.

A hundred miles further north, The Pie Place sits just outside downtown Grand Marais. The glassed-in porch is chilly, so I sit inside the dining room. I have vegetarian soup, which is excellent, and a slab of homemade raisin rye bread. I order raspberry pie. The crust is superb, the fruit firm and tasty. It is great pie. There appears to be something in the North Shore air that agrees with pie bakers.

Back home again, I’m working on a story on state parks that causes me to phone a ranger at Tettegouche State Park, north of Silver Bay. I was just up there, I tell him. Researching pie.

Did you eat at the Rustic? He asks.

Nope, I admit.

Get back up here, he says gruffly. I mean it.

I go back up there with my son’s hockey team, which is playing a tournament nearby. Between games, I pack a load of 11-year-olds who smell like hamsters into my car and head for the Rustic Inn Café, a remodeled log cabin. Beth Sullivan and her husband run the place. Beth bakes the pies. We have a table of hungry skaters, so we order everything. Soon, pie plates have multiplied along the center of a long table and we are all sharing. French apple. Strawberry rhubarb. Lemon Angel with meringue crust. Chocolate with a baked crust, meringue with cinnamon, melted chocolate chips, whipped cream with cinnamon, and chocolate cream. In the summer, Beth bakes 16 varieties a day. The Lemon Angel is a hands-down favorite, but all are terrific. The strawberry rhubarb is sassy and light with an expert, flaky crust. More excellent North Shore pie.

I’m done with my pie story when I head north again for my biannual stay at the East Bay Hotel in Grand Marais. Laura, the night desk clerk, is as hilariously funny as a standup comic, and I lean on the front desk for an hour, hearing the local news. When I mention my pie story to Laura, she off-handedly suggests I try the East Bay pie. I step over Belle, the yellow lab who sleeps in the middle of the lobby floor, and walk into the restaurant for dinner. Tonight is Mexican night, and there is someone speaking Spanish in the kitchen. Dinner is outstanding: fresh tortillas, sizzling rice, hot and fragrant spices. After such a meal, pie seems wrong, and I think I’ll skip it. But then I’ll have to face Laura. So I order: rhubarb.

It is flawless. The crust is pale gold, not pasty and pale, not overdone and brown. It is flaky and light, even along the fluted edge where it is folded over itself. It holds the fruit firmly and tastes of sweet butter. The rhubarb is redolent of summer, and is fresh, juicy, and red. With each forkful, sugar from the crusts sprinkles gently onto the filling. There it is. The most excellent, most wonderful, most perfect pie. My life boils down to this moment, to this simple joy, to me, sitting in a dining room overlooking Lake Superior, alone at a table for two, with this slice of pie. I am glad I have no dinner companion. I want to be alone with my pie.

This appeared in Minnesota Monthly, October 1999.