The Laundry Room

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Initially this post was supposed to discuss what a slob I’ve become since I began writing. I planned on stressing how my story, told in River of January has consumed my days and has trumped any other daily concern–in particular bothering to cook meals or even getting dressed each morning. Then I happened to catch Tina Fey in an interview on Inside the Actors Studio. I like Tina Fey. She reveals her honest opinions with no airs or pretense, openly laughing at her own shortcomings. This particular episode was clearly a rerun, with James Lipton discussing and sharing a clip from her newest film “Admission,” released back in 2013.

This taped exchange between Lipton and Fey eventually transitioned from her many successes on the big and small screens to authoring her first book, Miss Bossy Pants. She confessed that the writing process was surprisingly more difficult and caused her more discomfort than any screen play. Fey shared that she found time to work on the book during breaks on 30 Rock, and in spare moments on various movie sets. While at home, her husband tended their children while she hid in her laundry room to continue her manuscript. And Fey further admitted that publishing Bossy Pants left her profoundly vulnerable and solitary. She said, and I quote, “You really put yourself out there.”

This accomplished, brilliant writer-comedian used her laundry room for writing, and felt vulnerable about her work! Now, I certainly don’t pretend that I anything near her immense talent, but I, too, wrote a lot of River of January in my laundry room! Tina Fey and I both wrote books in our laundry rooms! In my case I busted out my laptop on that cluttered floor because our washer’s timing mechanism was on the fritz. I had to keep a constant vigil so the machine would finish a full cycle. Easily I passed a good two to three hours a session, leaning against the litter box, as the churning rotation of the washer and dryer rendered that little space the best spot in the house to concentrate.

Writing a book is hard, and has frequently forced me to reassess my value as a person. I believed real writers, like Tina Fey, sat behind elegant desks; keyboards illuminated by brass halogen lamps, genteel mugs of hot tea within reach, assistants scurrying in and out of the room conveying edited sheets of type to publishers. That scenario bears no resemblance to this middle aged woman, clad in flannel shirts and sweat pants, continually switching off the pause button on a faulty washing machine.

The most reassuring part of that TV interview was how anxious Fey felt over her book’s public reception, saying something to the effect of how she girded herself for literary failure. Again, another bingo. I’d like to count my writing meltdowns, and vows to never write again, but I only have so many toes and fingers. Any remarks readers have written or spoken regarding my book, River, is indelibly carved into my psyche–forever.

So the truth remains that my writing is mine alone. The words generated, the story those words tell, are between me and my computer. Still, aside from that solitary angle, plus the risk and intimidation in publishing River, I somehow feel less alone. Oh, that washing machine is now working fine.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, available on Kindle.

Visit www.river-of-january.com

 

The Crazy Gang

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Excerpt from River of January

. . . “We made our first trip to the Palladium, they lettered my name on the billboard “Helen Thompson, Our Saucy Soubrette” whatever that means. I thought it was cute. Anyhow, we entered the theater through the back entrance and met a lot of the cast. Such nice people, too. They told us that “The Crazy Show,” that’s what they call it, has been coming back to the Palladium for years. This group of comedians is known, together, as the “Crazy Gang” and made us feel very welcome. They explained that the same crowds return each season to see their old friends in the show. We felt pretty excited opening night when Jans and Whalen took the stage after the all-cast extravaganza and began their routine. Harry Jans told the one about the soldier who had survived mustard gas and pepper spray becoming a seasoned veteran. No one laughed. The audience hated them. No one booed, and they clapped a little when Jans played and sang, “Miss Porkington Would Like Creampuffs.” Remember that silly song? Other than that polite response, not a snicker sounded in the whole house. Then I went on stage and performed a widow comedy monologue; black gown, the whole bit, and I bombed too. With all those spotlights trained on me, if it hadn’t been for the coughing and murmuring I would have thought the theater empty. It was horrible— nauseating— I couldn’t believe how miserably we failed. WE LAID AN EGG!

After the show some of the regulars took us out for drinks. I wanted to run back to the hotel and hide. They led us to a nice pub, but I felt so shook up I could hardly light my cigarette. They explained that English audiences often don’t understand American humor. In particular, my widow act seemed more offensive than funny. “Too many widows after the Great War,” one comedian named Eddie Gray told me. “Not funny to families with loved ones who died in the trenches.”

River of January is available at www.river-of-january.com or at Amazon.com

The Working End of Tomorrow

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“A politician looks forward to the next election cycle, while a statesman looks forward to the next generation.” This admirable sentiment has been attributed to a number of speakers including Thomas Jefferson and the 19th Century Reverend James Freeman Clarke. But I heard the quote attached to President Gerald Ford. Whoever uttered these words has my full endorsement.

This morning began well. I awoke from a dream-filled sleep of taking roll, presenting lessons, and interacting with my students. They were all mixed up, hailing from a multitude of graduating classes, but still they were all my kids. I knew them well. In point of fact, most of my nights pass in a flowing narrative of teacher dreams, and I’ve gotten fairly used to this regular occurrence. The joke since retiring is, “I work so hard at night I should still be on the payroll.”

At any rate, after waking up, my mood remained jovial, still dialed in to happy. Tapping on my iPhone a picture appeared of a former student, now in a military uniform singing with three other soldiers. He and his brothers-in-arms were performing a rendition of the National Anthem at a public event. In another post a young lady, newly attending college revealed her fears about losing interest in reading for pleasure—a concern she happily resolved by opening a new book. Scrolling down the wall a bit, a wonderful family picture appeared of one of the kindest student’s I’ve had the pleasure to know. She posed before a Christmas tree with her three little boys, the youngest only two months old. Her husband’s caption clearly revealed his love for her and his boys. These posts are just, well, just so cool!

Not all teaching reminders and memories are as bright as those that I experienced this morning. Still, I wouldn’t have missed my time with these young people for a king’s ransom. Magic occurred in those classrooms; pure joy a guaranteed bi-product of the learning process.

I discovered over the years, that basic to the art of teaching and learning, is a faith in the future, a tangible something waiting ahead for every individual—a realized dream. All the hours of classroom preparation devoted to listening and thinking skills, observation, and problem-solving, were simply a training ground for young people to eventually find their place in the larger world.

While grappling with today’s incessant demands, it is far too easy to gloss over thoughts of the future. Caught up in the crowded moments that make up the present, many lose sight of the certainty of tomorrow. Teachers, however, are not permitted the luxury of settling in the moment. We must skip ahead of the “now,” planning and adjusting, then planning further. Intrinsic to our professional calling is the absolute assurance of a looming future, and we have to get our kids ready.

Perhaps stake holders could gain some perspective by casting aside trivial, momentary agendas—the noisy culture wars taking place across media battlegrounds, jousting in never ending finger pointing. Those distractions impede the progress available to our students, who are rapidly passing through the system. These kids are here today and gone tomorrow, quite literally.

When I assessed my students in class, I often envisioned them as adults, figuring out their individual niche. With that objective as my guide, I tried to design the best methods available to reach practical benchmarks. Even so, in the end, I had to let each class move on, a natural continuation forward to meet their futures, hopefully carrying my small contribution. An act of faith.

With our eyes vigilantly fixed on the countless tomorrows yet to come, would teachers be considered President Ford’s definition of statesmen? I’d like to think so.

Gail Chumbley is a retired educator and author of River of January. Also available on Kindle. Watch for “River of January: Figure Eight” this Fall.

Amelia Earhart?

One of the more satisfying moments researching “River of January.”

Gail Chumbley

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Piecing this story together didn’t come easily.  Though I have had the benefit of volumes of letters, telegrams, and pictures, among other sources, I still have struggled to get the story right.  The picture posted today provides an example of the most exciting finds I’ve made, but still shrouded with some doubt.

The girl in the center, in front of the Waco airplane, is Francis Marsalis Harrell.  From Chum’s thick scrapbook and an interview I conducted with him, I know her to have been his girlfriend.  They dated for a about a year after he left the Navy, and I believe he cared deeply for this young lady.  What brought me to that conclusion was piecework and conjecture.  First, during my interview sessions with Chum he lightly mentioned that his girlfriend used to time his trips into Manhattan from Long Island, but only when he drove female flight students into…

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A Mouse In My House

Gail Chumbley

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I could hear a mouse under the bed. Crisp little maneuvers, poking around the books and pictures stored down there. Now, I am not afraid of mice, that’s more of a snake issue, but still, this little varmint rooting around wasn’t exactly relaxing.

I woke my husband, and he didn’t complain or resent my waking him so late. He doesn’t like home invasions any more than I do. Instead he hopped up and found a mouse trap on the porch, slapped peanut butter on the trip latch, then just as promptly hopped back into bed and fell asleep.

Now, sleep wasn’t so easy for this girl–conking out after such a creepy discovery. I rolled to my side listening as that little critter resumed his inventory of my stuff.  My stomach tensed some, waiting for the steel of death to suddenly snap. It might as well have been a grenade with…

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Air Race, Willie Whopper Cartoon, 1933

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S66wOkha0aU

A vintage piece of celluloid from the Golden Age of Aviation. This cartoon has it all: racism, sexism, the boy hero, the hairy villain, and a hot girl (Earhart, sexy?). Reminded me of the pod races in Star Wars. This whimsical cartoon premiered  the year Chum won his air race, “The Darkness Derby.”

 

River of January is available on Amazon.com and www.river-of-january.com