Stuff I Write, Stuff I Like

Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Stuff I Like, Stuff I Write: Studs Terkel, Working, Dive Bar Poems, Human Stories, and The Fine Art of Being Real

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2013 at 4:47 pm

I met the great oral historian and journalist Studs Terkel when I was 18 years old. I didn’t know much about Studs back then, only that he was a writer and a pretty famous one, and since I wanted to be a writer, too, it was probably a good idea to go see him.


I was a freshman at a college in Erie, Pa. and deep into my angsty young-writer phase. I was partial to black velvet knickers, which I wore with knee socks and a fez I found at Goodwill. I’d quote Jake Barnes from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so,” and I’d try to drink boilermakers – unsuccessful — and smoke cherry cigars – unsuccessful — and use White Out to smudge the birthdate on my ID so I could hang out in old-man bars.

This was the 1980s, which explains some things and not others.

boy george

I hadn’t yet read Joseph Mitchell’s McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, but I’d read enough Hemingway to believe old-man bars were where I’d find my own lost generation.

I was convinced of this the time I met a one-armed man at The Decade in Pittsburgh. He was very drunk. He took a match, lit it off a cigarette, and held it in front of me.

“People,” he said, “make matchsticks from the mysteries of trees.”


I thought this was very deep, and maybe it is because I remember it all these years later.

I remember blowing the match out, one sigh-laden puff.

I tried my best to cultivate a snarky world-weariness a la Dorothy Parker back then. But I was prone to giggling and while I was sharp-tongued, I was about two beats slow on the Parker scale. Giggling in knickers makes world-weariness difficult. It makes faking an ID in old-man bars nearly impossible.

Most of the time I looked a lot like what I was — confused.

I’d grown up in a working class mill town outside of Pittsburgh.

“It’s not work,” my grandmother would say, “if it doesn’t show in your hands.”

Writing did not show up in my hands. My hands were smooth. My boyfriend’s mother tried to get me a job as a hand model for the JC Penney catalogue.


My parents had given me privileges they never had. I studied poetry in college. When people asked me what I wanted to be, I was embarrassed to say “writer,” so I said “Barbara Walters,” which seemed more practical, especially in the years before “The View.”

Studs Terkel, when I first met him, confused me, too. He showed up in his trademark red-checked shirt and red socks. His hair was thick and white and pushed back from his face, which was open and friendly and looked the opposite of world weary. Studs was always very excited about people, their stories, their hearts. He was excited about the world and everything in it. He was not embarrassed of this.

“My birth,” he said when he took the podium, “was a momentous occasion. I was born the same day the Titanic sank. The Titanic went down, and I came up.”

This, I would learn, was the way he always introduced himself.

He also always rode the bus because he wanted to be with people and hear their stories. He always wore the red-checked shirt so people would recognize him and talk to him. He loved his wife, Ida, and he loved the sound of the human voice above all things. He had the kind of laugh that shook his whole self out.

studs 3

His critics would call him sentimental. I, like thousands of other people who would be changed by Studs’ work, would call him something else. Human. Humane. Real.

Studs Terkel didn’t play at being a writer. He was one. He wasn’t morose, weighted down by gravitas, black-rimmed glasses and a serious scarf. He looked more like my Uncle Tony after a few beers.

My Uncle Tony had been a steelworker and numbers-runner. He used to slip me sips of Iron City beer and tell me that, if I’d just let him pick me up by my ponytail one time, it would toughen me up. My uncle was a storyteller who liked to hear stories back.

Before Studs Terkel, I’d never met a real writer. I didn’t expect one to seem so familiar.

“You’ll hurt your eyes,” my mother would say when she’s catch me reading too much. “You’ll get ideas.”

Like the ideas I already had about writers and writing.

I hadn’t yet read Studs’ book Working, though I knew about it. A year earlier, Studs had visited a high school in nearby Girard, Pa. when parents and some administrators there led a movement to ban the book.

In Working, Studs lets people talk in their own voices about their own lives. He interviews steelworkers, waitresses, housewives. One chapter features an interview with a hooker, which had the Girard folks’ panties in a twist. In 1982 in Girard, Studs said he’d come up to see what made the people there tick. He said he’d come up to encourage students to work hard, live honest lives, and read.

A year later, he was back in Erie, Pa. to do it again.

I went to see Studs at the urging of my writing teacher, a patient man who thought maybe it would do me some good to spend some time with Studs, who I would learn was very patient and good himself and who wouldn’t call me out as the idiot I was.

Most of my early writing years were like this—groping around in darkness, with this book or that book the only light in the mine.

Later, after Studs’ reading and talk, after he patted my hand and told me “You’ll be fine. We all will be, you know,” after I watched him shuffle out of the auditorium, I read Working for the first time.

I grew up with work – my father was a machinist, my mother a nurse, my Uncle Tony and so on. I started waitressing when I was 12. I worked for my grandmother, a 250-pound woman who ran the kitchen at The Trafford Polish Club.

At 18, I believed that, to be a writer, I needed to abandon everyone and everything I knew. I needed to have experiences, a word I’d italicize with my voice and an eye roll. I believed I needed to go to Paris like Hemingway and have my own moveable feast.


No one had yet taught me to write what I knew. Even if they tried, I wouldn’t have listened. I believed that my life, what I knew, was too ordinary and small to be worthy of art.

But in Studs’ work, there were these voices, so familiar to me, voices exactly like the ones I’d listened to when I was small and could hide under my grandmother’s dining room table during Sunday dinners, all my aunts’ and uncles’ legs around me, fences that held me in and gave me a framework I wouldn’t understand for years.

I’d listen to my Aunt Peggy talk about her mammogram – “Don’t laugh,” she’d say to my Uncle Bus, “You wouldn’t like it if they made grilled cheese out of you.” I’d listen to my mother talk about her patients – the one who threw the bedpan, the dying one who saved popsicle sticks from her meal trays and made them into beautiful sculptures.

popsicle sculpture

The men didn’t talk much. Maybe it was because they thought no one would be interested in their stories from the mill and the machine shop, or maybe it was because work had worn them down and they were too tired to talk and so their stories were lost with them.

What Studs taught me: it’s important not to lose those stories. Everyone’s life matters and is worthy of art. There is no such thing as an ordinary life.

And the most important thing, maybe – don’t be a phony.


I teach college now, so it’s important for me to remember that last one. Every semester, I teach Studs’ work to my students and try not to tear up when I tell them my favorite Studs’ story. It’s about the time he was mugged on the streets of his beloved Chicago. I don’t know if the story’s really true or not, but I believe it. The story is, the mugger jumps Studs. Studs and the mugger are rolling around on the ground. The mugger’s going for Studs’ wallet, but Studs wants to talk.

“So how many of these jobs do you do a day?” he asks the mugger. “How much do you get for a job like this?”

Another thing Studs taught me: world-weariness is for chumps. Stay curious. Know yourself. Be true to yourself. And be grateful.

In Working, Studs has a chapter on Mike Lefevre, a steelworker like my father and uncles, who talks about his dream job, the perfect balance of all worlds:

“I’d like to run a combination bookstore and tavern. (Laughs.) I would like to have a place where college kids came and a steelworker could sit down and talk. Where a workingman could not be ashamed of Walt Whitman and where a college professor could not be ashamed that he painted his house over the weekend.

“If a carpenter built a cabin for poets, I think the least the poets owe the carpenter is just three or four one-liners on the wall. A little plaque: Though we labor with our minds, this place we can relax in was built by someone who can work with his hands. And his work is as noble as ours. I think the poet owes something to the guy who builds the cabin for him.”


Stuff I Write: The Flour of Our Youth

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2013 at 5:26 am

Here’s a piece that was first published in The Washington Post  and in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a while back. It’s about baking with my kids. It’s also about the dangers of leaving kids alone with a big bag of flour. And it’s about love and the way it comes down, generation after generation. Always that.

Thank you to the editors for giving this essay a happy childhood.


A Season in Flour

I’m in the kitchen. Phelan, my 4-year-old daughter, is in the dining room. I’m mixing dough. Phelan has opened a bag of flour the size of a ham. I don’t know this. I should.

I hear her yell, “Snow, snow, snow!”

I hear, “It’s winter!”

I hear, “Snowball!”

I’ve been looking out the kitchen window as the mixer whirs away.

Whenever I bake, I think about my mother. The day is sunny, snowflake-free. There’s a space between the time I hear something and the moment I figure out what it means.

“Slippy,” my daughter, fluent in Pittsburghese, says. “Cold.”

Flour is everywhere — in her hair, in the stereo, in her shoes. Later I’ll find flour in her underwear and flour in her socks. But right now, she smiles up at me, flour stuck like snowflakes in her eyelashes, smudged on her pink cheeks, caught in the blonde pigtails that stick out like antennae.

“Look at me,” she says. “I’m baking.”

Every year around the holidays, my husband, who hates chaos, flees, and the kids and I make a lovely mess. For my daughter, it’s flour. My son, Locklin, 7, has moved on to dough. Dough makes great quicksand for his toy soldiers. Dough makes a good mustache. Dough sticks to his sister’s butt.

The kids have their own rolling pins. They help measure sugar and cinnamon. Phelan gets distracted and gets a bowl, pours herself a nice cinnamon-sugar mix and eats it with a spoon.

When I was growing up, I didn’t get to bake with my mother much. It made her nervous. “I don’t like people in my kitchen,” she’d say as she anchored a childproof gate between the kitchen and dining room. She said the gate was “to keep the dog out.”

The dog — a sensitive poodle named Tina II — and I would sit outside the gate and watch my mother break eggs with one hand and toss the shells into the trash in one fluid motion, like a magic trick. She’d turn on the easy-listening station and hum and glide from refrigerator to counter and back. My sad mother the magician. My lonely mother the dancer. How had this happened? The dog and I sulked and waited until my mother passed a peace offering — batter-covered beaters, one for me, one for the dog — over the gate.

I know now that my mother loved the solitary time baking gave her. It offered an excuse to detach from the `world, from the dog and my father and me, and make something her own. It’s what I do when I write, when I close my office door and leave my children and husband on the other side. “A room of one’s own,” Virginia Woolf called it. Space to make something beautiful.

When I did get to bake with my mother, we made handprint sugar cookies. My job was to put my hands onto the rolled-out dough and hold still. Real baking — the breads, nut rolls, all the family traditions — my mother did alone. It wasn’t until after my son was born, a few years before she died, that my mother finally gave in and decided to teach me.

I’d like to say I was a natural, that all those years of watching paid off, but it’s not true. Our first lesson, bread, was a disaster.

My mother told me to be at her house at 5 a.m. Mornings make me want to weep. I was late, 5:15, and I looked a mess. My mother wasn’t happy. Her gray hair was curled. She had on her favorite track suit, purple velour with gold piping at the cuffs, and was wearing tennis shoes. She looked like she’d been waiting for hours.

“What’s the matter with you?” she said. “You have to start bread early.”

I didn’t know what that meant. I also didn’t know what she meant when she said, “Bread is serious business. Bread is no joke.”

I laughed during my lesson, my forearms buried in a swamp of sticky dough. My mother whacked me on the arm with her wooden spoon.

“Look,” she said. “Do you want to learn or not?”

She picked up her bowl of dough and pulled it to her belly like a child. She dipped one arm in and lifted the dough up and over, whipping more than kneading, the muscles in her arm flexed and solid and nowhere near 70 years old.

“This is how you do it,” she said. “You have to work it. You have to mean it.”

My mother talked about yeast and bread as living things — things to conquer, things you could kill if you weren’t careful. She didn’t use measuring cups and spoons. “You just know,” she said, her hands measuring flour and sugar by weight, by how it moved through her fingers. “You can feel it.”

She’s been dead five years now. I still feel the weight of that.

“You need to learn how to do this,” she’d said. “Because when I die, then what?”

In the dining room, my daughter helps me spread more flour on the table. We laugh and smooth out the mounds until there’s just a dusting.

“Snow,” she says. “Snow snow snow snow snow.”

I separate the dough into bowls, one for each of us. My son rolls his into tiny balls. He launches them like cannonballs with his thumb.

“Pow,” he says. “Bang.”

“Snowball,” my daughter says.

My mother wouldn’t appreciate our approach, but within a few hours the house will fill with smells I remember from childhood, and I’ll lay the golden loaves onto racks to cool. When my husband comes home, we’ll have the flour under control. My daughter’s face will be scrubbed and I’ll have picked the dough out of my son’s hair.

“Look,” Phelan will say as she takes her father by the hand to show him what we’ve made. “Isn’t it beautiful?”



Stuff I Like: Love, Family, and Italian Love Cake (Also, Fractions)

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2013 at 5:16 am

Today my daughter Phelan and I made an Italian Love Cake.

“You have to be in love to eat it,” Phelan said. She’s 8 and can be very serious about these things.

And so, before she’d turn over a slice, she asked everyone in the family if we were in love. We all said yes, except for her brother, who’s 12 and thought this question was both awkward and prying and told her so.

Actually he put her in a headlock, which is brother-language for “Please respect my personal space.”

This is Phelan making the cake:

phe with cake

And here we are celebrating:

phe cake

We don’t need a reason to bake a cake together. We do that a lot, though we made this one as part of a school project. Phe’s class is learning fractions and her teacher came up with the delicious idea to put together a class cookbook.

“How many halves equal a whole?” Phe wanted to know.

“Two,” I said. “Like me and you together. One plus one equals whole.”

If you’ve never had Italian Love Cake, you should make it right now. But you have to be in love to eat it.

Who do you love right now? Take a minute and celebrate that.

Or maybe, if you’re feeling a little lost and lonely, the cake can bring love your way. I think cake is a many-layered thing.

I told Phelan this.

“Makes sense,” she said.

And then she looked at the cake, all that fluffy mousse-like topping, and added, “I wish I could put my whole face in it.”

Love and cake are like that.

Here’s the recipe, which comes from my friend Carol, who I love a lot and who first made it for me for my birthday many years ago when I was a little lost and lonely and far from home.

Italian Love Cake

1 box marble cake mix (prepared according to directions)

1 9×13 greased pan


2 lb. ricotta cheese

4 eggs

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla


1 box chocolate instant pudding

1 tub of Cool Whip

1 cup milk


Prepare cake batter according to directions. Pour into 9×13 greased pan.

Prepare filling by mixing ricotta, eggs, sugar and vanilla. Beat until smooth.

Pour filling over the cake batter down the middle.

Bake for one hour at 350 degrees.

Let cool.

Mix topping ingredients together. Beat until smooth.

When cake cools, top with topping and enjoy.


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