Sport Literate, Fall, 2015
“Maybe, Just Maybe, This Time….”
Lansing, Michigan, 1983: A mild, mid-May Saturday morning. I’m headed to the corner to pick up a newspaper. The sun has just baked off the early morning dew. But when I inhale the aroma from my neighbor’s lilac bush, suddenly, I’m time tripping.
Rockaway Beach, NY, 1953: a warm June Wednesday morning. School’s out; and I can’t wait to jump on my three-speed Schwin and peddle 3 miles up to Riis Park for a day of marathon pick-up baseball. Saturdays are all about baseball too. When the Brooklyn Dodger’s are home, three fellow fanatics and I ride the hot, sweaty subway for two hours just to see them play.
Lansing, MI, 1983: Now is the time when duffers start digging last fall’s divots out of their golf shoes. And wann’a-be jocks like me are pulling their baseball uniforms out of mothballs.
For the last 20 summers, I’ve played on and managed a fastpitch softball team. Today’s our first practice. At home, I put on my red and white-stripped “Gino’s Bar” uniform. Minutes later, I’m loading the bats into my trunk, wondering what I’ll tell my wife Carole. I’ve promised her we’d go to France this summer; a trip she’s been lobbying for since graduate school.
As is my ritual, I unzip my duffel bag, checking to see that my spikes and glove are packed together. But folded inside the mitt’s pocket are two brochures: photos of the multicolored rose windows at Chartres, and an aerial view of Mont Saint Michel. I feel like I’ve been caught cheating on a test.
At the same time, I’m imagining myself making a circus catch in left field while our shortstop waves his glove in the air and yells out, “hit the god-damn cut-off man, Steinberg, ok.”
I pick up my head and see my neighbors Brian and Sally weeding their flower garden. Rick next door mows his lawn while his wife trims the hedges. Larry and Patti are out front playing with their kids and German Shepherd, Alfie. And Carole, I know, is in the backyard planting tomatoes. Her own spring ritual.
They’re all getting on with their lives. Not me, though: I’m 42; to them I must look like Clarabelle the Clown. A chilling moment, no denying it. Red-faced, I sneak back inside, peel off my uniform, drive to the park, drop the bats off, and I….come home. Which, for me, is a first. I can’t wait to tell Carole that her sneaky tactic has worked. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to quit playing.
Ludington Michigan, 1985: For the last decade, our vagabond traveling team has played in a holiday tournament in this small resort town on Lake Michigan’s northwestern shore. On the drive up, I’m kvetching about my meager department raises. But Carole is way too savvy to bite. She knows the answer; and, deep down, so do I. There was a time when I’d intentionally strike an in-your-face pose if a colleague caught me leaving my office dressed in a softball uniform. What the hell could I have been thinking back then?
Between games, we always hang out at the local diner. Dressed in our usual road attire--uniform jerseys, cutoffs, and flip-flops--we’re headed out the door when I spot my department chair, Bernard Engel. He’s walking with his wife toward the diner. No place to hide. When Bern notices me, he does a double take, before whispering something in his wife’s ear.
In my paranoid frenzy I imagine him saying, “Isn’t that cute, dear? It’s one of our faculty; and he is, I believe, wearing a baseball costume.” My cheeks are burning. I stammer something about being up here for a softball tournament. But before I can blurt out, “Don’t worry, I’ll get my student papers done on time,” luckily, I catch myself.
I’m thinking about a similar scenario, a cringer, just like this one is. At 15, I cut school to see Brigitte Bardot’s nude scene from And God Created Woman. On my way out, I ran into my Rabbi and his wife as they were headed to Westrich’s deli up the street.
Lansing, MI 2012: By the time we’re in the car, I’m convinced that I’ve deep-sixed my chance of getting another raise. Carole is quiet. But I’ll bet she’s thinking something like, “Maybe, just maybe, my Bozo husband finally got the message.”
Lansing, Michigan, 2000: That was decades ago; and, as it turned out, time, Carole was right. We’ve been to France a half-dozen times since I stopped playing. Plus, a lot of other places too.
The Great Lakes Review, Summer/Fall, 2015
Living in Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan:
A Meditation on Memory and Place
Someone once said that if the Leelanau Peninsula has a polar opposite, it’s probably Manhattan.
--Kathleen Stocking, Letters From The Leelanau
It’s just after dawn on New Year’s Day. My wife Carole and I are at our get-away cottage in Leelanau County in Michigan’s north woods. Carole is in the loft working on a painting, and I’m standing at the bay window nursing a cup of coffee, gazing out across Lake Michigan. A few embers still glow in the fireplace, and the smell of smoke intensifies when I stack more logs on the grating. Outside, a pale sun rises through foggy mist above the bay, and a new snow begins to coat the evergreens. It’s an idyllic winter scene, to be sure; yet, my imagination, like the fire, suddenly flares. And the scene I’m conjuring takes place back in the early 60's, when I was living in Greenwich Village.
An early October morning, and the air has just turned nippy. I leave my West Village walk-up and stroll through Washington Square Park, past sneakered, white-uniformed nannies wheeling baby strollers, and scruffy teenagers making their morning connection with seedy-looking drug dealers. I pause to watch the old men in pea jackets and wool caps playing chess, and I see a group of NYU students gesturing with their hands and talking loudly as they head for their morning classes. Picking up a Times at the 6'th Avenue subway newsstand, I inhale the musty aroma from the subway grating and watch the spiraling steam rise, while my feet are being warmed by the burst of compressed air that’s been pushed up in the departing train’s wake. I walk by the tiny asphalt park across the avenue and pause to watch the neighborhood kids playing hooky basketball on the fenced-in asphalt court known as “the Cage.” As I head up Bleecker, I wave at the Italian storekeeper stacking the morning’s shipment of produce on the outdoor stalls. My last stop’s at David’s Potbelly, where I linger over a hot cup of coffee and kibbutz with the usual coterie of neighborhood writers and painters about the Yankee’s season-ending loss to the Red Sox. At ten o’clock, I get up and walk over to the New School to attend my weekly writing class.
Part recollection, part invention, that scenario has been evolving in my imagination since we arrived here a few days ago. Perhaps I’m more sentimental than usual because I’m disappointed that Carole and I will not be going to Manhattan for the holidays. It’s only the third time that’s happened since we moved to Michigan thirty-five years ago. We’re here at the cottage because I’m trying to finish a memoir before the January 15 deadline.
Home for these past three decades has been East Lansing, 200 miles to the southeast of Leelanau County. Surrounded by lush, flat farmland, East Lansing is a lively but generic midwestern college town. Grand River Avenue, its main thoroughfare, is comprised mainly of hole-in-the wall-student bars, sweatshirt emporiums, and the kinds of fast food shops you’re likely to find in most college towns. The red and gold Tower Records store across from campus seems sadly misplaced in this chintzy milieu. Two miles to the west is the city of Lansing, East Lansing’s more populated blue-collar neighbor. Lansing is Oldsmobile’s home base, as well as being the state capital. To a couple of former New Yorkers, Lansing/East Lansing is no more or less stimulating than are Columbus, Ohio or Des Moines, Iowa.
Leelanau County, on the other hand, is to Michigan what the Finger Lakes region is to upstate New York, and what Cape Cod is to Massachusetts. It’s a prized locale of woodlands, rolling hills, wineries, and cherry orchards--surrounded on three sides by the blue expanse of Lake Michigan. After twenty-five years of living in a land-locked college town, we wanted a more exotic setting; a retreat where Carole could paint and I could write without the usual interruptions and distractions of home. So ten years ago, we decided to have the cottage built.
It’s turned out to be a sanity-saving move, despite the fact that the guy who delivers my firewood, the local furnace man, and the young boys who clean the chimney in October continue to refer to us as view us as “fudgies from “downstate.”
Since we couldn’t go to New York for the holidays, we decided to bring Manhattan to the north woods. On the day we drove up here, Carole packed two carousel trays containing slides we’d taken during our last few holidays in the city. And I made certain to bring along a handful of CD's and some books about New York in the 50's and 60’s. Ever since I turned fifty I’ve been revisiting old jazz, and I’ve been reading books by writers who either grew up in New York or else came to Manhattan from somewhere else. Many of them write about hobnobbing with the New York intelligentsia of that romantic era-- Ginsberg, Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, and Thelonious Monk--that raffish, exotic mix of avant- guard writers and performers that captivated me when I was growing up.
Back then, the New School, downtown, and Columbia, uptown, were the “in” places for would-be intellectuals and aspiring artistes; while the Greenwich Village clubs, like the Gate and the Vanguard, were the late-nite spots where you’d go to hear the likes of Monk, Coltrane, and Miles Davis. And some of the local taverns were well-known watering holes for cult artists and writers. Allegedly, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and other Beats frequented Chumley’s on Bedford Street. And they also held court at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson and 11’th, where legend had it that Dylan Thomas took his last drink--his sixteenth of the night--before checking out for good.
On our first night in northern Michigan, I was reading Dan Wakefield’s New York in the 50's, and we were listening to Mel Torme’s ”Songs of New York.” These, of course, tripped off a rush of memories. I recalled with a mixture of pleasure and regret those Christmas Eves spent attending midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, meeting old friends at the train stations in Armonk and Farmingdale, and revisiting the site of my grandfather’s pharmacy on 129'th street in Rockaway Beach. Carole reminisced about taking the New York Central up the Hudson to Scarsdale to visit her sister and niece. And she waxed nostalgic about lunch meetings with old high school friends at the Tavern on the Green.
The next evening, while Mc Coy Tyner’s “New York Reunion” played softly in the background, we watched our slides and shamelessly 'oohed" and "ahhed" about our old holiday rituals: o’d-ing on Off-Broadway plays, standing on line at 8 a.m. in sub-zero cold to get tickets to the Matisse or Miro exhibition at the MOMA, and hiking at 2 a.m. against a cutting East River wind to the all night Brasserie on 54'th for a hot cappuccino and a peche melba.
Mid-way through the slide show I was brought up short when two successive pictures clicked on. One was of a photo we’d taken in 1996 on Fifth Avenue, in front of the Doubleday Book Store, and the next slide showed the facade of the Scribers pavilion, a few door down. Both reminded me of a recent feature column in the Times , a piece that mourned the loss of the old New York bookstores--Brentano’s, Doubleday, Scribner’s, Books and Company, Shakespeare and Company, and the Abbey and Pomander book shops. And then there was the article last week about the closing after 64 years of Rainbow and Stars (formerly the Rainbow Room), the chic, sophisticated nightclub situated in the crow’s nest of the central skyscraper at Rockefeller Center. On a clear night high up there on the 65'th floor, you could see the searchlights illuminating the nearby Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, the shadows of Central Park, the Statue of Liberty’s torch, and the string of shimmering lights atop the Brooklyn Bridge. Dinner and drinks at the Rainbow Room were always too expensive for the likes of us. But on birthdays and anniversaries, we’d take the bus and subway into the city and stand at the back of the bar. For less than twenty-five bucks we could nurse a drink and watch performers like Tony Bennett, Julie London, and Eartha Kitt belt out jazzy arrangements of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Mercer, and Gershwin standards.
Maybe transporting all this New York memorabilia wasn’t such a good idea after all. Because the more we reminisced, the more we longed to be back in the city. But which city would it be? The one that exists now, or the New York I’ve conjured up in countless daydreams over the three decades of my exile?
The following morning I promised myself that we’d change the routine. For the rest of the week we woke up early and brewed a pot of coffee; then I’d write at the dining room table while Carole painted up in the loft. After a mid-morning breakfast we’d walk or cross country ski in the woods. Late afternoon, Carole would cook up a winter soup or stew, and I might bake some bread before we took a catnap. At dusk, one of us would feed the fire and then we’d read ‘till dinner. The only concession we made to our New York dreams was on Thursday night. Right before bedtime, we sat in front of the waning fire and put on some Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald C.D.’s. Pretty soon we were time tripping again, matching remembrances of lazy Saturday mornings when we were kids tuning-in to Martin Block, and then later, to William B. Williams on WNEW’s “Make Believe Ballroom.”
I grew up in Rockaway Beach (Queens) in the late 1940’s and all through the 50’s. Our neighborhood extended for 23 blocks, beginning at the boardwalk on 116'th street and ending at Riis Park beach at the foot of the Marine Parkway Bridge, the imposing steel and concrete structure that spanned Jamaica Bay and connected the Rockaway’s to the Flatbush Avenue extension in southeast Brooklyn.
Like Leelanau County, Rockaway is a long, narrow peninsula, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay. In the summer the beaches and boardwalks, from Riis Park to Edgemere, were as crowded as those at Coney Island or Jones Beach.
Because we were set apart from the clamor of the city, our little peninsula had the feel of a of small town or vi129’th street, three blocks from my house, was the neighborhood shopping hub. On that block, between Cronston and Newport Avenues, stood my grandfather’s drug store, Sam’s Cahmi’s deli, the Peter Reeves supermarket, Cushman’s bakery, Irv’s candy store, Tishman the tailor, the Tydol gas station, and Johnny’s shoe repair shop. At night we kids hung out at Irv’s, smoking cigarettes and fabricating stories about our successes with the girls in our class; we schmoozed with neighbors while standing on line at the bakery; and we caught up with the local gossip while sipping egg creams at the soda fountain in my grandfather’s pharmacy. The only troublesome skirmishes arose when the Irish Catholic kids from St. Francis would taunt us Jewish kids for being “Christ killers.”
From my house, situated a few hundred yards from Jamaica Bay, you could see the outlines of the Manhattan skyscrapers twenty- five miles to the west. As a teenager I had visions of becoming a writer; consequently, I was irresistibly drawn to the myth of “The White City” as a literary mecca. But that dream faded when Columbia turned me down for admission. A few years later, I was dating Carole, attending Hofstra College on Long Island, working weekends at the pharmacy, renting the dingy walk-up in the Village, and taking an elective writing class at The New School. My would-be poems and short stories were coming back with form letter rejections, and when I graduated I had virtually no job prospects--and no money. So in 1964, when Michigan State offered me a teaching assistantship, Carole and I moved to East Lansing. My hope was to get my PhD in English and head right back to New York.
From the start, life in Michigan was not an easy passage. My difficulties, I’m sure, were rooted in disposition as well in geography. During graduate school, I struggled to attune myself to the less urgent pace of midwestern life. It perplexed me that on weekends my neighbors were content to play with their kids, wash their cars, watch TV, and take care of their lawns. And for the first five years I lived here, I whined about not being able to get the Times each day, or about having to drive for an hour to Southfield and back just to get a good bagel. I made a big fuss over the non-existence of egg creams in Michigan, and I could never quite get the hang of driving directions. In New York, the streets have numbers and names. And we say things like “swing a left on 14' th,” or “hang a right on Ocean Parkway.” Here, they tell you to go north or south and then they give you nebulous markers, like a church or a school. You need a compass to figure out how to navigate even a small town like East Lansing. Trivial concerns, maybe; but to a congenital New Yorker everything’s an inconvenience. Part of our ethic (and I think, our charm) is to complain.
A tougher accommodation though, was adjusting to the inbred politeness and reserve of midwestern friends. It’s taken years, for example, to understand even simple telephone etiquette. When a friend says, “I have to let you go now,” it’s a polite euphemism for “You’ve been talkin’ my ear off for an hour and I wanna’ get back to my life, ok.” Which is what most New Yorkers would have said. And since I moved here, I’ve been advised more than once that I’m a whiny, opinionated Easterner. It’s funny because when I was growing up, I had the reputation for being the least assertive member of my family. It’s interesting, isn’t it, the ways in which geographical location influences one’s sense of self.
When I got my doctorate in the mid-70's, I could see that teaching positions in the arts and humanities were awfully scarce. A college job in New York was simply out of the question; and I didn’t want to move to Iowa or Kansas to teach five sections of remedial writing at a J. C. So I compromised; I accepted an offer to stay on as a freshman composition instructor at Michigan State--all the while thinking that within five years something back East was bound to open up. That was twenty-five years ago and I’m still here.
I recall when the realization that I wouldn’t be going back to New York sunk in. About fifteen years ago I was kvetching, as usual, to a colleague about how much I yearned to be back in New York. “Everyone on the faculty here” she said, “I mean EVERYONE--has wished in their mind, that they were somewhere else--Yale, Columbia, University of Chicago, Berkeley. Get over it. It comes with the territory”
Since we’ve lived in the midwest, we’ve intermittently longed for the city’s romance and allure, as well as for its dissonant ambience; the subway, the tumult and animation of an urban neighborhood. And there were times in those early years when I especially yearned for the aggressive give-and-take of those commando coffee klatches I used to participate in back in the Village.
But things have changed over the decades. In some ways the midwest has become more like New York than people here care to admit. Traffic jams, road rage, and unprompted rudeness are now part of the texture of our daily lives. It used to take ten minutes to drive the five miles from campus to my friend’s house. It now takes a half hour. And Michigan drivers, once reputed to be the soul of courtesy, don’t hesitate to cut you off without signaling. Or they’ll crawl up your bumper, or flip you the bird if you’re cruising under 80 in the passing lane. Plus, all of a sudden there are too many shops that sell imitation New York bagels, and a glut of stores masquerading as New York deli’s. And can somebody tell me why it costs twice as much for an abridged edition of the New York Times?
I shouldn’t kvetch so much, though. Over time, I’ve become grateful for several things about Michigan. For one, Carole and I can own a home and live comfortably on moderate, fixed incomes. Something we could never have managed in Manhattan. And over the years I’ve assembled an enclave of ex-New Yorkers who I meet with regularly for coffee. And of course there’s the landscape of Leelanau County.
When we first moved to Michigan, colleagues and friends urged us to drive 200 miles due north and explore the segment of Michigan that extends from Traverse City on the western shore of Lake Michigan, to Mackinaw Island on the Lake Huron side. It’s an imposing setting, dotted with woods, inland lakes and picturesque fishing streams, abundant forests, working wineries, fruit farms, and rustic vacation homes. And the area is surrounded by three of the five Great Lakes.
From the first time I saw this part of Michigan--a colleague took me on a cook’s tour of Hemingway country--I was drawn to its aura and ambience. And of course the presence of Lake Michigan, Huron, and Superior reminded me of the Rockaway’s. Another enticement has to do with the mythology and lore that’s evolved over decades. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on the Leelanau Peninsula. Kathy Stocking, whose book, Letters from the Leelanau is a paean to the area, describes the peninsula as a “Michigan Eden with [its] trilliums and northern lights--only six hours away from Detroit.” And depending on whose version of the myth you believe, the word “Leelanau” is the Indian name for “land of delight” or “beautiful lost Indian daughter.”
Stocking also writes of other prophecies and legends about the peninsula, such as the rumor that the Leelanau will be the site of the second coming of Christ, “with the next Messiah to be born...at the forty-fifth parallel--right about where the roadside picnic table is, north of Sutton’s Bay.” Whether one believes these stories or not, Stocking says that “these myths and legends and fantasies about the Leelanau Peninsula, are, as much as anything, a testament to the way the delicate beauty of the place touches people’s imaginations.”
I can vouch for the truth of that sentiment. Because when I’m “up north,” as the natives call it, my imagination, and sense of wonder are ignited in ways that rarely occur when I’m back in East Lansing. The catalyst can be anything from sitting on my deck listening to the roar of the lake, to watching a midnight sky lit up by the northern lights, to coming upon a sudden blaze of sumac in the woods on a nippy fall day, to walking the rocky beach at dawn, watching the slow infusion of pinkish-orange light creep across the lake’s horizon.
Like the Rockaway’s, the Leelanau Peninsula is a loosely integrated network of small resort communities. These include Empire, Leland, Sutton’s Bay, Lake Leelanau, Peshawbestown, and Northport, the village where my cottage is located. Located right at the tip of the Michigan’s little finger, Northport often reminds me of 129’th Street in Rockaway Beach, and even of certain small neighborhoods in the Greenwich Village of my college days. From the Rose Street Marina at the eastern most intersection of Nagonaba and Bay Street, I can survey the entire downtown. There’s Tom’s Market, and across the street, “Dog Ears,” Pamela Grath’s used bookstore. Her husband David’s art gallery is right next-door--they share the same bathroom. At either place, at any given time, you can count on running into a neighbor or acquaintance.
There’s also the Ship’s Gallery pizza parlor/Dairy Queen, where the local high school kids hang out. Edee Joppische’s art gallery is around the corner from Barb’s bakery, which is on Mill Street. Barb opens and closes the shop according to a schedule only she can divine. On most most summer mornings though, you can sit and linger over coffee and one of Barb’s sweet rolls and catch up on the local gossip with Sarah Mead, who owns Shorelines, the clothing and chotske shop next to Barb’s. The Filling Station on the corner of Park and Waukazoo, sells gas, rents videos, carries newspapers, and is a convenience store to boot. In the summer, you can even get the New York Times and Chicago Tribune if you get there before nine a.m.
Northport Building Supply, the hardware store across from North Country Gardens, is still a family owned business. If you need a ten-cent widget or gadget, they’ll find it for you. Haserot Park, right next to the marina, has a band shell for summer evening concerts, and a public beach. A few pleasantly random streets--Shabwasasung and Smith Avenue--wind through the village and up the hill, where the high school and athletic club/health care facility sit. On these quiet streets reside rows of stately Victorian wood frame houses, and a few classic Michigan cobblestone homes. And some of the roads on the edge of town--Craker, Garthe, and Gill’s Pier--are named after families that settled here in the middle of the nineteenth century.
In the early- 90’s, just after the cottage was built, I had two cornea transplants, each of which gave me a big block of time away from teaching. Truth is, I was in my early 50’s and just beginning to think about my mortality. Cornea transplants have a way of reminding you of that fact that you’d already logged in more years than you probably had left.
During my eighteen-month hiatus from teaching, I began to feel a nagging urgency, a message that was warning me that if I didn’t get serious about my writing now I might never have this chance again. So while I was AWOL from teaching, I spent a good piece of my time furiously drafting a series of essays about—what else? --growing up in New York City in the late 50’s.
It was as if someone had granted me a “get out of jail free” card. Because, even before the eye surgeries, my patience with students was wearing thin. When they said goofy things like “This sucks. Why can’t we read happier books,” my comments were becoming more caustic and defensive. I even tossed a few guys out of class when they showed up unprepared or without their books. Also a first for me.
The surgeries had given me a chance to step back from teaching for almost 18 months. And during that period, I got an MFA in Creative Writing. It was something I’d wanted to do for years. I just hadn’t been able to find an excuse that would give me permission to write.
Naturally, when my paid vacation was over, I was not exactly keen on the idea of having to go back into the classroom. At first, I tried to make the best of it. I told myself that sometimes an enforced absence is just what you need to reinvigorate yourself. But when I got back, I could see right away that things had changed.
I felt like a space invader in my own classroom. Some of my freshman glided mindlessly (or was it deliberately?) into class on skateboards or roller blades. Some wore headphones and others ate snacks and drank soda while I talked. A few even had the chutzpah to take calls on their cell phones.
Conditions outside of class had also changed. For one, I was receiving frequent reports from the counseling center, bureaucratic memos informing me about students who were in alcohol or drug rehab, or who had eating disorders, and family histories of abuse. And then there was the student who sent me an email apologizing for not turning in her essay on time. She said, without a trace of irony, that she missed the deadline because she’d tried to kill herself that weekend. She hoped I’d understand and that I’d give her an extension.
Coupled with the effects of over two decades of reading ninety student papers every two weeks, repetitive and finally mind-numbing faculty meetings, fruitless negotiations with bureaucratic gate- keepers, and obligatory committee work had left me thinking seriously that maybe it was time to move on.
For decades in Michigan, the single constant in my life--aside from my relationship with Carole--was those annual trips to New York. In October, right around the time we booked our hotel, I’d set up a meeting with Ken Klegon, our financial advisor, to discuss the possibilities of early retirement. In the back of my mind, I was even entertaining the notion of maybe moving back to New York. Or, if we couldn’t afford to do that, perhaps we could live somewhere else in the east. Boston? Philly? DC? Baltimore?
Ken Klegon had been our advisor ever since I turned fifty. And we’d done reasonably well under his tutelage. This time when I asked him about the prospects of getting out at age 57—which would be five years from now--he took out a sheet of paper and itemized the things Carole and I would have to do to make this even a remote possibility. If the stock market continued to do as well as it had for the past few years, he said, we’d still have to make some sacrifices that neither of us had previously considered.
When he finished itemizing our debts, Ken gave us two pieces of advice. One was to pay off our credit cards. And to make sure we don’t run up more interest charges, he as much as ordered us to pay our credit card balance in full each month.
Reasonable enough, I thought. But what he said next wasn’t quite as easy to swallow.
“I know you both like to travel. And you like eating in good restaurants,” he said. I could feel myself starting to squirm in my chair.
“Well you’re going to have to cut back on those if you want out in five years.” That one hurt. Traveling and eating out are two of the pleasures that had helped me cope with living in Michigan. At least, that’s how I’d rationalized it so far.
While I was chewing that one over, he leaned forward in his chair and said, “Mike, you’re always complaining about not having enough time to write. I suggest you put a hold on your New York trips, and instead get your ass up to your cottage and write.”
I could accept not going to Europe every other year; and I could live with not eating out as much in good restaurants. But ever since we’d moved to here, those New York trips were a lifeline, my way of reconnecting with my old roots.
I whined and kvetched, of course. And it took a while for us—for me, especially--to wean ourselves away from those annual New York excursions. But eventually, go up north we did. Five years later, I was able to take early retirement; and when I left the university I was finishing up two books, neither of which, I’m sure, would have been written had I not taken Klegon’s advice to heart.
Just as Klegon had predicted, coming up here to write did indeed help temper my feelings of displacement. And yet, I was still worried that I daydreamed too frequently about my old life in Greenwich Village. Still, in more temperate moments, I recognize that the New York I dream about and the Leelanau County I romanticize are as much states of mind as they are physical settings.
Other writers, I know, have experienced a similar disparity. In her anthology, Leaving New York, Kathleen Norris writes that Willa Cather “experienced her best writing years in Greenwich Village from 1912 to 1927, when the most celebrated of her Nebraska novels were published.”
“To do fictional justice to Nebraska,” Norris says, “apparently, [Cather] found it necessary to remain in New York.” And ex-New Yorker, Leslie Brody, says in her memoir, Red Star Sister, “I had to leave New York in order to preserve its poetry.”
Similarly, when I’m up north, I find myself daydreaming too frequently about New York. And this has caused me to speculate. I’ve lived in New York, in Michigan, and in an imaginary New York. Let’s say I did move back to Rockaway or the West Village; would I then become nostalgic for my Michigan retreat--or even for my life in East Lansing? I’m thinking here of something one of my coffee klatch cronies once told me. “New York,” he said, “is that old girl friend you hope won’t show up one day and, God forbid, start hitting on you. Because just like you, she’ll be fifty-seven, and not the young girl you remember.”
He’s right; because recently I saw two more articles in the Times, one proclaiming that WQEW, the last New York outlet for jazz and pop standards, has become a Disney-oriented children’s station; and the other announcing that the Brasserie is being remodeled for the first time since it was built in 1959. The new Brasserie will feature rows of video monitors and will no longer serve cappuccino and deserts after midnight.
I know I sound pretty retro here. But when I’m thinking clearly, I’m aware, as my coffee klatch crony observes, that locales invariably do change. Especially an evolving city like New York. Part of Manhattan’s charm is that it’s always reinventing, redefining itself. And I’m not unaware that people can also change. Myself included.
As I stand in front of the bay window, I watch a tanker glide across the lake’s horizon. Then I turn away and see Carole’s art displayed on the walls. I pause to gaze at David Grath’s Leelanau landscape, “Manitou Dreams.” There’s an inscription that reads “To Carole and Mike, living in paradise.” I see the bookcase to my left, and I look at the section of the bottom shelf that’s reserved for my writing. That’s when I spot the blinking cursor that beckons me back to my morning’s work. In that long moment, it occurs to me that my mid-life memories of Greenwich Village are not unlike my early dreams of becoming a writer. And now, some thirty-plus years later, I am a writer; but I’m living in Michigan, not in New York.
For decades the New York of memory and imagination has represented excitement and wonder, the opportunity to be caught up in the whirlwind of a more stimulating, even sometimes enchanting existence. At the same time my equally self-invented Leelanau landscape offers a grounded, meditative state of being. At different moments, in different moods and phases, I’m alternately drawn to one or the other. Sometimes to both, simultaneously.
At some level then, I realize that this is about learning to accept the life I have, not the one I fancy. Case in point. The other day, a writer friend was chiding me about this same conundrum.
“Haven’t you ever had a fantasy about living in a more glamorous place?” I asked him.
“Sure. I’d love to have a place in Paris I could go to whenever I wanted a taste of that life.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“Well, if I did it” he said, “Then it wouldn’t be a fantasy anymore, would it?”
And so as I walk the few steps to the computer, memory is already transporting me back to the West Village of my college days. I’m crossing 6' th Avenue after my writing class, and the afternoon sky is turning dark. The nannies in the park and the old guys playing chess have long since departed; but the basketball games at “The Cage” are still going full bore. I swing over to Bleecker and stop at the Italian Market to pick up a loaf, before heading back to the Potbelly for my late afternoon ritual; a mug of hot cider and some hard-nosed, down-home, New York City--kibitzing.
SELECTED SINGLE WORKS: 1990-2012, Under Construction
June, 2013 "Did It Really Happen That Way?: The Memoirist As Unreliable Narrator, " adapted from an AWP panel talk in March, appears in the current issue of TriQuarterly
June, 2012 "The Multiple Selves Within," TriQuarterly TriQuarterly.
Fall, 2011, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, 6th ed. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, Pearson www.pearsonhighered.com.
Spring, 2011, "The Person to Whom Things Happened": Finding the Inner Story in Personal Narratives, a Craft Essay. >Grist, A Journal for Writers, Issue 4, 2011,
Reprinted in Prime Number Magazine, issue 11.
Spring, 2011 "Writing Literary Memoir" Talking Writing, Talking Writing.
Fall, 2010, "Chin Music" (with a revised epilogue). The Gihon River ReviewVol 15, pp 39-51."Chin Music" was chosen as a "Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2010.
October, 2010 "Annotations: An Inside/Out Approach to Reading Like A Writer,” from Teaching the Essay pp 13-16, Welcome Table Press Welcome Table.
Fall/Winter, 2010-11 Excerpt from Staying In The Game: A Memoir, Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, Nonfiction, pp 1-5 Solisticelitmag.
Fall, 2009,“Memory, Fact, Imagination, Research: Memoir’s Hybrid Personality”, Solstice, A Magazine of Diverse Voices Solistice.
OTHER SINGLE WORKS
Summer, 2008 “Shorelines: A Meditation on Seven Beaches,” Iron Horse Literary Review, pp 47-54
Fall, 2008 The Pinch,“Living in Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan,” pp 5-15
2007/8,Paterson Literary Review, “Working Out: A Memoir.” pp 260-276. Chosen as a Notable Essay, 2007, Best American Essays, ed. David Foster Wallace and Robert Atwan, Houghton Mifflin
Winter, 2006 Harpur Palate “School Daze: Riffs and Reflections on a New York Childhood,” pp 120-134
Spring, 2003 “Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays,” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, 5:1, pp 185-188
Spring/Summer, 2002, New Letters, Chosen as a Notable Essay, 2003, ed. Anne Fadiman and Robert Atwan, Houghton Mifflin. pp 177-201
Reprinted in 2003, Sport Literate, Special Issue: Retrospective Reflections pp 120-135
Fall, 2001 Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction ( 3:2) “Planning For Surprise: The Role of Discovery in Writing Personal Essays and Memoirs.” pp 222-227
Spring 2000 The MacGuffin, “A Voice in the Choir: Musings of a Mid-life Writer.” pp 82-86
“Dream Expatriate.” Reprinted in The MacGuffin: Dreams of Travel Thoughts of Home, Spring, 2001, pp 57-67
Spring, 1999,“Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the Real Truth?” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (1:1) Spring, 1999, pp 142-146
Winter, 1997, “Long Courtship,” Sport Literate, pp 6-20.
Spring/Summer 1997,“Chin Music: A Memoir,” Florida Review, (23, 1), pp 68-79. Chosen as a Notable Essay, Best American Essays, 1999, ed. Edward Hoagland and Robert Atwan, Houghton Mifflin.
Reprinted (second-fifth editions, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2010) in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction ed. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, Longman/Allyn and Bacon
Reprinted in The MacGuffin, Spring, 2000, pp 73-81
Spring, 1997,“Living the Leelanau, Writing New York,” The Dunes Review, pp 55-58
Spring, 1994 “Trading Off: A Memoir,” The Missouri Review ( 12, 1) pp 136-157
Winner of the 1993 Missouri Review Editor’s Prize. Chosen as a Notable Essay, Best American Sports Writing, 1995, ed. Glenn Stout and Dan Jenkins, Houghton Mifflin
Reprinted in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction ed. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, First Edition, 1998, Simon and Schuster/Allyn and Bacon, pp 184-199
Reprinted in Scoring from Second, ed, Philip K. Deaver, 2007, Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, pp 104-128. Trading Off.
Summer, 1994, “Dreams of Immortality,” The Writing Self: Journeys Into the Art of Writing (33) pp 11-13
1992 Hoofbeats, “In Memory of a World Class Horse Player,” Harness Racing Association Prize for Best Feature Article pp 47-58
Winner of the 1991 Roberts Writing Award. Roberts Writing Award Annual, Kansas City, pp 67-71
Winner, 1991 Roberts Writing Award
"Notes From an Accidental Journal Keeper,"Writers and Their Notebooks, ed, Dianna Rabb, University of South Carolina Press, 2009, pp 101-109
“High School Baseball Tryouts,” After the Fall, ed. Maggie Anderson and David Hassler, University of Iowa Press, 2007, pp 143-145
“Trading Off: A Memoir” (reprint), Scoring from Second, ed, Philip K. Deaver, Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2007, pp 104-128
“Trading Off: A Memoir,” reprinted in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction, ed. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, Simon and Schuster/Allyn and Bacon, first edition, 1998.
“Chin Music: A Memoir,” reprinted in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction, ed. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, second-fifth editions (2002.2005, 2007.2010) Allyn and Bacon/Longman
“Dream Expatriate,” Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs From Michigan, ed. Michael Steinberg, Michigan State University Press, 2000, pp 209-221
“Finding the Inner Story in Personal Essays and Memoirs,” reprinted in,” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction ed. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, third-fifth editions, 2007, Allyn and Bacon/Longman
“Teaching Writing Creatively: A Very Personal Approach to Creative Writing,” New Plains Review, Fall, 2008 pp 134-140
“Teaching Composition, Writing Creative Nonfiction: A Personal Narrative,” Writing on the Edge, Fall, 2007, pp 34-40.
‘Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the Real Truth?” reprinted in Writing on the Edge, 12:1, Fall/Winter 2001, pp 15-20.
“Three Things That Stopped Me in My Tracks: An Exercise in Discovery and Reflection,” reprinted in Now Write Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Nonfiction From today’s Best Writers and Teachers, ed. Sherry Ellis, Tarcher/Penguin December, 2009, pp 3-5
“Planning for Surprise: The Role of Discovery in Writing and Teaching Nonfiction,” reprinted in Open Book, ed Kate Fetherston, Roger Weingarten, Cambridge Scholars, Press, 2006, pp 297-302
“Self Discovery to Self Examination: Teaching the Personal Essay as Inquiry,” Teaching Writing Creatively, ed. David Starkey, Boynton Cook/Heinemann, 1998, pp 71-85
“The Writing is For Us: Granting Ourselves Permission Though Personal Narratives,” Robert L. Root and Michael Steinberg, Those Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching , A Sourcebook, National Council of Teachers of English Press (NCTE), 1996, pp 3-18
“Creating Our Own: Writing About Literature in Expressive and Imaginative Forms,” Robert L. Root and Michael Steinberg, Those Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching, A Sourcebook, National Council of Teachers of English Press (NCTE), 1996, pp 149-159
“Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching: Serving Two Passions, Workshop 6:The Teacher as Writer, ed. Maureen Barbieri and Linda Rief, Heinemann, 1994, pp 10-17
“Moving On" and "Why Write Narrative, Writers in the Classroom", ed. Ruth Nathan, Christopher Gordon Publishers,1994, pp 1-3 and 4-13.
SELECTED (VERY) POEMS
“Stand and Deliver Meets Dead Poets Society,” Writing on the Edge, Fall/ Winter 1996/1997 p 46
“Elegy for Ebbets” Sport Literate, Winter, 1996/1997, p. 46