The Life of the Boulevard

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I CONTEMPLATE, from here on my front stoop, the purpose of the city boulevard. Boulevards are the no-man’s land between private and public property, the line where what-is-mine meets what-is-no one’s; strips of green or brown or mottled space running north and south, east and west, laid over the city like a criss-crossed counterpane. Upon boulevards, we leave behind what we no longer value. They are the collecting places for empty things: condoms, beer cans, fast food bags, brilliant glossy bits of paper that once wrapped chocolate and nougat and peanuts. They are the resting places for dead things: a twisted black crow, a hapless squirrel, pocket bottles that once held whisky and rum. They are the amassing places for … Read More

The Knocker Lady of Whittier

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WHEN WE BOUGHT this 90-year-old house in Whittier, we thought the heavy, wide, wooden door needed a knocker. We went to a store that sells metal pulls and knobs and levers and latches. While I was musing over whether we should choose a brushed finish or a shiny one, my husband interrupted me, beaming. “I found it!” he announced, and hefted up an enormous brass lion head chewing on a big ring. It would have been at home on the gates of Buckingham Palace. “You’re a Republican, aren’t you?” I asked him. Eventually, I yielded and agreed that he could hang his king of the beasts only if he also hung up some other, lesser door knockers to prove that we … Read More

Walk This Way

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SO I HAVE this immobilizing boot thing stuck to my foot. Apparently, there are tendons in my feet, and I have annoyed mine. Or, there’s a fracture and I stressed it. Either way, my left foot is now encased in plastic and I drag it around with me wherever I go. I figured out that I can still garden. I stick my leg in a Hefty trash bag and off I go to sit in the mulch and weed. In a pinch, I can even manage to hoe with my toes, more or less. I can still teach. Once I maneuver myself across campus, a lengthy and hopping sort of task that involves cursing in Gaelic (well, it does for me, … Read More

Nettleton to Squirrels: Drop Dead

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TRUE STORY.  I heard a scrabbling noise at the back door a few mornings ago. I figured it was my husband trying to carry his 6-foot-tall string bass into the house after orchestra rehearsal but not having enough hands to hold onto the bass, fish out his house keys, and turn the knob. So I whipped open the door with an “aren’t I a helpful person?” look on my face and discovered … no husband. Instead, eight — not two, not four, but eight, actually eight, really eight — squirrels were on my back step. Now, my back step is a wee little thing, about the size of the swing of a door, and then I’ve gone and complicated matters … Read More

With Sticks and Stones

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TWO DAYS BEFORE SEPT. 11, I visited one of my favorite Minnesota small towns and annual festivals. I went to Northfield for the Defeat of Jesse James Days. This year was the 125th anniversary of the fateful day when members of the James-Younger gang rode across the bridge into town. The people of Northfield take great pains to celebrate not the infamy and charisma of a roving gang of bandits but the bravery of the townspeople. Townspeople who, until a crisis was upon them, didn’t look much like heroes. Before their economic and physical security was threatened, they were just a butcher, a tailor, a town doctor, a druggist. In their wildest dreams they would never have imagined themselves in … Read More

The Ties That Bind

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HOMEMADE PASTE. The taste in my mouth on Valentine’s Day is not Godiva chocolate, but the humble flour-and-water adhesive my mother concocted in the kitchen each February. My sisters and I would gather around the kitchen table with pink and red construction paper, white paper doilies, and boxes of those hard-as-cement conversation heart candies. Then my mother would pour flour into an aqua melamine cereal bowl, dribble in a little water, and stir up the glop. Ostensibly, it was an edible way to glue homemade valentines together. Probably, it was simply easier than piling six little girls into the car and heading out to buy a bottle of Elmer’s Glue-All. The bookish smell of that floury stuff, occasionally hinted at … Read More

Out Here by the Lake

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OUT HERE BY THE LAKE it is black, blackest in the places where the sky and water meet and blend and blur into a single, smudged, and near unending charcoal line, drawn inexpertly and redrawn over and over itself. Out here by the lake the stones grind to rock and then to sand and on to grit that turns back to grinding stone again. Pounded by mere water, made silt by sheer persistence, the rocks of gray and brown crack, then halve, then shed and shed and shed until they have wasted away, anorexic in the face of ages. Such patience the water has, such resistance to the presence of the shore. Out here by the lake only the shore … Read More

Luck of the Draw

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NO SOONER has the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie been served than we begin the exalted family ritual: the drawing of the names. There’s a certain historic economic sense to this in a family of six siblings. When we were all little girls, it was hard to make that $1.25 allowance stretch five ways, so we adopted the practice of choosing names. Instead of spending a quarter on each sister, we bestowed a generous five of them on one. Those of us old enough to augment our finances with baby-sitting money could afford to go to the store and buy a gift that a sister might actually desire. The younger, penniless ones had to make stuff. Strange stuff. Odd things, crafted out … Read More

Ovations from the Stage

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THERE IS A STORY told about Pablo Neruda. In a concert reading in his later years, the Chilean poet stumbled while reciting a poem and lost track of the words. He could be forgiven; the man produced so many hundreds of poems that by the time he was an old man in the 1970s, he would certainly have forgotten a line or two along the way. They are gorgeous things, Neruda’s poems. Oh, not all of them. Some are mediocre, some tossed off over coffee, some presaged Rod McKuen. Many are excellent but bloody (he was a political creature in times of revolution and exile), but most are paeans to his lovers’ bodies, to passion, to desire—poems on fire, lines … Read More

Burst Bubbles

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SITTING IN THE ORPHEUM watching Riverdance, the shuffle-shuffle-ball-change suddenly came back to me. A 30-year-old seed of regret, along with a couple of tricky tap combinations, bubbled to the surface of my consciousness. It could have been me up on that stage. I, too, could have tapped my way across the country with handsome Irishmen. I could have shuffled off to Buffalo. But I blew my Lawrence Welk audition. I am breaking a code of silence, here. It is a rare friend who knows I once practiced heel-toe-heel-toe-hop-slide-slide for hours on my mother’s kitchen floor, lined up with my five siblings in order of height. I was the oldest, but not the tallest, so I had to stand second. I … Read More