An Obit Writer and an Essayist Walk Into a Church…

Yesterday I stepped into church, Catholic Church, for the first time in about a year.

I still do the holy water, the genuflection and the kneeling. I will always love the Nicene Creed. I don’t take Communion. So, walking in I do the holy water and proceed down the aisle. I get only a few steps before a man, whom I’ve never seen before, stops me.

“I read what you wrote in the paper. Very nice.”

One can respond to this a few different ways:

  • “Thanks. Who are you?”
  • “Thanks.” (elegant, multipurposefully appropriate, offensive only when sarcastic)
  • “Who are you?” (no)
  • “Thanks. What are you talking about?”
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One time I made cupcakes and it was 2 a.m. before I realized I had exhausted my supply of cupcake papers.

I went with a variation on Option D. “Oh,” I say. “The cupcakes piece?”

He looks at me blankly for a minute, like cupcakes have evolved from this anyone-can-bake-it party staple into a mystery of faith. “Cupcakes? Hmm…”

“No,” is what he actually says. “The obituary.”

I had to laugh, because to me the paid death notices in the newspaper all follow the same, fact-based, minimally creative format. They’re expensive to run, so understandably most death-notice writers go with the bare minimum: Insert name here, date there, wrap it up with visitation and donation information. When I wrote my grandfather’s obit last week, I never thought of it as an act of writing.

Anyway, I thanked the gentleman who turned out to be the undertaker. I explained that I had written something else “about cupcakes” a few weeks ago, so I wasn’t sure which piece he meant.

Thirty minutes later, my aunt arrives with her husband, John.

“My mother showed me the piece you wrote in the paper,” John says after a round of hugs and condolences.

“The obituary,” is my succinct, all-knowing reply.

“No, it was the piece about your, well, about schools.” John gets a little vague for a moment and I know why and I’m used to it. He is talking about the cupcakes.

We laugh as I recount my talk with the undertaker. If anyone had mentioned my “pancakes” post during yesterday’s funeral, the confusion would have thickened like a stack of buttermilk flapjacks in the logging-camp kitchen. Been thinking about loggers lately – the result of some low-grade family research I’ve been doing to prep for my grandfather’s funeral.

Writing advice

So here is what I’ve learned – about writing, not logging:

  • If you want to write a great obit: do the basics; modify an adjective like “loving” with an unexpected but accurate adjective like “brusque”; add one or two sentences of character description for warmth and flavor. For Grandpa Tom, we went with: “For years he took a daily cup of coffee at the old McDonald’s restaurant on Packard Avenue.” Poetry that ain’t, but it’s a humanizing moment and proof that “small stuff” can reveal one’s character.
  • If you want to write a memorable essay, give it a quirky title. Trust me, I’ve written some snoozers. Folks might forget the content, might disagree with the content, dislike your tone or perspective, but they will remember you wrote something somewhere if the title sticks. And they’ll mention it! So many people have mentioned “cupcakes” to me in the last few weeks that my next piece, no matter what it’s about, will have “eclair” in the title. Or chutney!

Gratitude and Grandpas: A ‘Thank You’ Note

Years before I ever started to blog I taught two weeks of blog writing to college freshmen and sophomores. They could blog about anything, but they didn’t. Their collective range of self-selected topics was fairly narrow: “The O.C.” a Fox primetime soap starring that guy with the eyebrows like midnight’s caterpillars, weight loss, weight gain, the beginning/end of a relationship, high school.

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In retrospect, that’s a rich range. It covers a lot during a time of life when, for lots of folks, things are really starting to happen. Why was I getting cynical and condescending on all these aspiring PR execs and Rolling-Stone exposé-writer wannabes? Was it the typos? Was I not seeing the forest because all the dangling modifiers and gratuitous caps were getting in the way? Well, typos were on the grading scale. They had to be addressed. Every classroom is a rainforest when you’re teaching early-college students how to write.

“Can we just deduct five points from anyone who writes about eating too much, not eating enough, or a blog about Milwaukee’s best restaurants?” I one day joked.

“Or dead grandpas,” my colleague typed back in our email exchange.

Reality check. Today I am a soccer-mom whose singular literary contribution is a late-night blog where I talk about food and dead grandpas. What am I doing here? And what’s your excuse?

Thanks for your thoughts, your time

Actually, what I am trying to say is “thank you.” From my mom who wrote me a sweet, “I’m practically a Democrat now”* response to “National Pancake Day,” to my husband who promoted that post on his facebook page and quadrupled my total readership in a couple hours, to diaryofacorporatewife.com, a faraway friend who offered me condolences and a reblog — people I know, plus a few who I don’t, have said real nice things about my grandpa and my writing. This is meaningful and motivating during what has turned out to be an exhausting and emotionally fraught week in ways that I so. did not. expect. Stories for another time? Maybe…

Now, about the chutney

Tonight I had hunger pangs for bhel puri, but any chaat would have done. Something in-your-face fresh and colored like a rainbow and tasting like the chaos and character of Mumbai — at its best, of course — is what I wanted.

This reminded me. Chutney Challenged. This is a food blog and I need to get back to it, simmering with renewed focus and adventure once life settles down just a bit. To all who followed me here seeking Milwaukee’s answer to Padma Lakshmi: do be patient. There may be no chutney right now, but I remain challenged. Very much. Always, I promise. And the chutney will come again. I promise.

*That’s really not at all what my mom said, but what she said was very kind, very loving, indeed.

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