Engaged in a Civic Discourse ~ Pat and Chuck Wemstrom’s View From the Keyboard

Pat and Chuck Wemstrom make their home in the country outside of Mount Carroll, IL where Philip and I have a part-time residence. The area is filled with kind, friendly, generous people, many of whom are a bit conservative in their world view. Philip and I, descendants of hard-core lefties, took a few years to find like-minded friends in Mount Carroll, and we were delighted to first encounter Chuck and Patty in the letters to the editor page of the small local paper, and their remarks about healthcare and education and equal rights in love and life and keeping things green told us that these were folks worth getting to know. A delightful coincidence was that Chuck was looking to further hone his writing craft just at a time when I was engaged to teach a writing workshop at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point. Since then, we have shared meals and stories with this civic-minded couple, and now I am happy to introduce them to you.

Oh, and you should see their house out there in the country. Full of light and books and art. So good.

Pat and Chuck: We started by writing an occasional letter to the editor. One day, something in the paper upset Chuck and he wrote an especially long letter. He realized that it was too long for a letter, but he sent it to the managing editor, Eric Petermann at the Journal Standard, and he explained that it even though it was too long he wanted Eric to read it. Eric emailed back and invited us to his office. He said we could be “the J-S’s Steve and Cokie Roberts.” No guarantees, maybe once or twice a month, whatever, whenever. We’d all play it by ear. And of course we would not be reimbursed!

We love it. It has been almost a year and a half, and we appear regularly every Tuesday on the J-S’s op-ed page. Patty [W] keeps us honest. She does the editing, the proofreading and sets the standards. No name-calling. No cheap shots. Better sources, more documentation, not just Wikipedia.  Right now she’s on Chuck that Gene Lyons writes better than we do.

We get emails and snail mail, and people stop and talk to us at the grocery store and even at the symphony. The J-S has the column on-line and readers post their comments.

We share the “computer room,” a converted guest bedroom. No sudden noises, no Pandora and no mindless interruptions.  We each have our own space and our own corner to make our own mess. And when it gets out of hand, one or the other of us will say, “Enough!”and we’ll pretend to clean and organize. We share ideas from the very beginning. We’re each other’s critic and cheerleader. When we read each other’s work and the reader says, “Good,” the author has to try and interpret that “good.” Is it a good rough draft, is it a good column which just needs a bit of work here and tweak there or maybe it’s one of the better columns. And sometimes we have to figure out how to say, “Well, for me at least, it doesn’t seem to work very well.”

Patty McNair has come into our lives and is encouraging us to expand our horizons to try different styles and it’s working. Chuck loves to brag that he has a writing teacher. Not quite true, but it makes him feel important.

Why do we do it? It’s fun to put words together, even when they won’t come, simply refuse to come. And when they do come, when whole phrases, even sentences seem to write themselves, Wow! Sometimes our writing seems pedestrian, mundane, and derivative. But when it all comes together it makes us happy. When someone writes and says that they enjoyed our column, that it made sense, that it was well said and they appreciate someone caring enough to write, we feel really good.

Over the years we’ve read about writers, intellectuals, statesmen and just plain folks who believed that civic discourse was important. Others believed in a life of the mind. It’s not about last night’s game, but about what you are reading and thinking about, wanting to talk about.

When we taught, we knew sooner or later it came down to art. Teaching is a skill, a craft, but it is also an art. Good teachers fall short because they’re not artists. They’re not helping to create something in the classroom.  We think writing even the op-ed piece, the personal essay or memoir is an art. And we want to be involved in the artistic process.


An excerpt from Chuck’s work-in-progress:

There is more to school than books, curricula, chalkboards, NCLB, national standards and tests.  School is all about people. I have lots of ideas about curriculum, but my goal is to write about people. This is the beginning of a longer piece, one of a series of stories.

For the first twenty-five years of teaching, I looked forward to the first day. If I had taught summer school, I would have liked another week or so, but I was ready. If I hadn’t taught summer school I was ready by mid-August to get back to school, anxious to get back into the swing of things.

Everybody looked good the first day. Lots of teachers were dressed up. They had lost five pounds of that old winter fat, their clothes fit bit better and they had a little bounce in their step, a tiny swing in their hips as they hurried from one meeting to another. The women looked especially good—a little sexier, a little younger and a little bit more enthusiastic.

That was all destined to change over the course of the coming year. The white teachers would lose their tan, take on a pasty look as the year dragged on. The black teachers would go from the fresh look of summer to kind of a dull, gray, dusty complexion. And at the department meeting, the chair would introduce the new teachers. We’d all wonder, “Were we ever that young, did we look that good twenty years ago?”

An excerpt from Patty’s piece originally published in the Freeport Journal-Standard:

Walt Kelly’s comic strip “Pogo,” popular throughout the fifties and sixties, often satirized public figures. Responding to complaints from readers, several newspapers chose not to run particular strips.

Kelly, when writing a political story line that might draw fire, began sending alternate strips that a newspaper could publish. Called “bunny strips,” the cartoons featured bunnies telling insipid jokes. Kelly told fans that if they saw a strip with fluffy little bunnies in it, it meant that their newspaper didn’t believe they were capable of thinking for themselves.

The Chicago Tribune recently cancelled a brief series of “Doonesbury” strips that made fun of Sarah Palin. The strip repeated statements from Joe McGinniss’ new book, “The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin.”

In the Doonesbury strips, Fox News reporter Roland Hedley is given the assignment of putting a positive spin on McGinniss’ book, a Herculean task considering the material. For example, a neighbor is quoted in the book as saying Palin neglected her kids. Hedley tweets: “Book: Sarah taught kids self-reliance. So Alaskan.”

In our judgment, the target of the satire in the Doonesbury strip was not really Sarah Palin, but Fox News. Trudeau is saying that Fox reporters distort the news to reflect their own political views.

And yes, Fox News addicts will not agree. But most satire is controversial, and one of the foundations of this country, aside from Freedom of the Press, is Freedom of Speech. Readers should demand the truth and not settle for fluffy bunnies.

To read more from Chuck’s first days in the Chicago Public Schools, stop by and get a view from his window at his blog: http://aviewfromchuckswindow.blogspot.com/. And to read more from Chuck and Patty about ecology, economy, education, NRA Robocalls and ideas for a kinder, better world, visit the Freeport Journal-Standard. (Authors’ photo from Freeport Journal-Standard.) Thanks, Chuck and Patty for sharing; and thank you all for reading. -PMc