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 

Have Cat, Will Write ~ A View From the Keyboard

Perhaps you have read Philip’s fine blog post today about his (almost) studio in Mount Carroll, IL, where we have a nice old house. If you have, you know that he has hit some snags along the way, and has not been able to complete his dream studio as originally planned. 

As I read that piece, I was reminded how lucky writers are in that they can create just about anywhere. On a train, in a coffee shop (where I am now,) and in our very own writing rooms. I am one of those folks who really likes to have things set up the way I want them, and my writing space in Mount Carroll is a good example of that.

The necessary things are there: computer, journal, coffee, comfortable chair, cats, a view that I need to turn in my chair to see (like I talked about in an earlier post, and in this case, Philip’s (almost) studio building through the screen over my window.) My desk is a small old piece that I believe one of my great-great aunts used as her art table.

The not so necessary things–the ones that give me delight: an old portable (!!!! it weighs about twice as much as my laptop and the carrying case is even heavier) typewriter that Philip bought me for my birthday; pictures of my mother and of Hemingway in Cuba with a six-toed cat in his arms; a wedding day photo of me, mom and mother-in-law Maggie; a plate with the muses dancing around its edges; a collection of bells, some that were my mom’s, another I bought in a delightful antique store in Empire, Michigan; a tiny sock monkey (I LOVE sock monkeys); a miniature typewriter that is really a pencil sharpener; a small letterpress stamp of a secretary at the keyboard; a bunch of paperclips in a bowl that my mother brought back from some exotic place; a bobble-head turtle; mug from Maine that the delightful Anne-Marie Oomen gave me once when we were teaching together at Stonecoast Writers’ Conference.

I like my stuff. I am a stuff girl.

And here, then is a bit of the novel-in-progress I’m working on.  Today, I think it might be called Climbing the House of God Hill. Allison, one of the pivotal characters, is playing her first game of Truth or Dare with a bunch of kids at a 4th of July party. Perhaps you don’t need me to tell you that, though.

Climbing the House of God Hill (excerpt)

And even though the kissing was nice now, now that Trevor stopped all that crazy moving around (and good practice, she figured, why not) she was done with all of this already; it wasn’t what she expected, wanted, desired.  It seemed silly now, this Truth or Dare they were playing.  Kids’ stuff.  Baby game.  And why wasn’t it enough for her to be here with them, to be like them, tiptoeing into the next part of their lives?  Why did she want so badly to have more, to do more?  She knew, as she pushed Trevor’s hand harder against her own breast, held it there and moved it slowly instead of that fast rubbing in circles thing he’d been doing, that it was part hormones, probably, sure, the stuff they warned them all about in bible study, and it was partly the books she’d been reading, her mother’s books.  But it was partly those other books, too, the ones her father actually allowed her to read, the ones that talked about sin and redemption and always—to Allison at least—made the sinning part sound more exciting, more rewarding (except maybe the burning in hell thing.)  And then there was that other feeling, that awareness that she carried with her always about how she was going to die sometime unexpectedly, who knew when, like her sister, like her mother, like those people on the planes and in New York, and what if she died and she never had the chance to—you know—have sex?  Even when Rebecca talked about sex with her (when Bud was away, obviously, and only when Allison asked) she talked about it being something special, miraculous.  And what if Allison died—she could, you know, maybe fall and break her neck, maybe get terminally ill, maybe a terrorist attack, these things happened—and never got to feel what this is supposed to feel like, this special, miraculous thing?  And she pulled Trevor to her even more closely and she wound her legs around his, impressed her body on him.  She held on.

Do you have your own View From the Keyboard? Find submission guidelines under “categories” at the right. Enrique (top cat,) Pablo (cat at bottom,) and I thank you for stopping by.  -PMc←

Mount Carroll’s Market Street Commons ~ A Temporary View From the Keyboard

What was once known as the Kraft Building, a lovely old commercial edifice constructed more than 100 years ago, is now home to Mount Carroll’s Market Street Commons. After a devastating lightening strike to the old building and its resident businesses a few years ago, the place was taken over by Mount Carroll’s Community Development Corporation. Today the restored historic property is home to a number of small businesses and vendors, as well as a Welcome Center. Conveniently, the best coffee in town can be purchased here, and there is WiFi access as well. (We make good coffee at our house in Mt. Carroll, but we don’t have internet access. Or a phone. Or television.)

Dig the great tin ceiling, the original floors, and of course, the fancy new coffee making equipment. And that’s Philip up there in the first picture, in case you were wondering. Dig him, too. I do.