Archives: books

The Great Wall and the Great Ringwall: A tribute

 

Wallie loved life so much he seemed determined not to leave it, but time won out Aug. 12. He was 95. This is one of my favorite photos of my in-laws. We’d just brought our first son, Casey, home.

 

I won’t lie. The thought of writing about my big-fish father-in-law, Wallie Funk, scared me. How would I summarize his long, noteworthy life in a blog post? What would I include? What would I leave out? In spite — or perhaps because of — my close association with the man we affectionately called “The Great Wall,” I didn’t feel up to the task.

Then it dawned on me: Don’t try. My husband, Mark, already wrote the obituary and did a bang-up job.

So . . . here are my impressions of the man I came to know, with some family lore thrown in. I’m also including Wallie’s late wife, Mary Ann (Ringwall) Funk, because I can’t write about one in-law without the other. Both were equally influential in my life. How long has it been? Mark and I got married in 1987 and dated about three years before that. . . My God! Has it really been almost 35 years? No wonder I feel overwhelmed.

I remember meeting THE PARENTS. It was over dinner at the Washington Athletic Club, where they and Mark were members. I’d never eaten at a restaurant with a dress code. For a girl brought up by a single mother of limited means, this was another world. I remember being mesmerized by Mary Ann’s large jewel pendant as I tried to appear poised and well-bred.

I needn’t have worried. Wallie did most of the talking while I smiled and nodded and chewed with my mouth closed. If I said anything, it was probably in response to the coincidence of my last name.

Mark and I met at the Herald in Everett, where we were both reporters, but my name had apparently come up before I knew any of the Funks. I was on the staff of the University of Washington student newspaper, The Daily, while Wallie served on the publications board. Mark and Wallie had spotted my byline and wondered if I was related to KING/5 TV reporter Don McGaffin. He, along with Wallie, had covered the horrific capture of Lolita and six other killer whales in 1970 in Penn Cove.

(I’m not related, though Don McGaffin did stop by to see me once at The Daily office.)

Anyway, we found common ground, the Funks and I that extended beyond their son. We bonded over our mutual love of writing and journalism:  the mighty pen and the picture worth a thousand words; stories that marked history and made change.

Mary Ann — a former high school English teacher who did her part to keep the local bookstore thriving – was every bit as passionate about those things as Wallie, but she was comparatively quiet, the yin to his yang.

One of the few pictures of Wallie with the family. He was usually behind the camera. Carl is wearing red socks; Mark blue.

 

Wallie’s favorite holiday was Christmas; hers Halloween (she was born on Oct. 28). Mary Ann would entertain Mark and his brother, Carl, year-round with tales of trolls and monsters. For Halloween, she carved the pumpkin, and I bet it was her idea to have Wallie go out after dark and walk around the house with that lit gourd on his head.

“We had a record with the Headless Horseman story,” Mark recalls. “That pumpkin looked like a face with fiery eyes.”

I’m sure Wallie had a blast thrilling his young sons with a floating jack o’lantern, but Christmas was his time to shine. He’d get the tree, lights and decorations up shortly after Thanksgiving and leave them up long after the first of the year. (Towards the end of his life, Christmas was just part of the furniture.) On THE DAY, after the dinner plates were cleared and Mary Ann was busy in the kitchen serving up pie, Wallie would “hold forth” at the head of the table for anyone who cared to listen.

It was more often than not a stream-of-consciousness, anecdote-filled who’s who of Anacortes and Washington State politics, arts and history. I will admit, I sometimes got bored and looked for an excuse to drift away, maybe try to help Mary Ann with the dishes (only to be told no). Wallie’s energy for talk could be exhausting, but I usually learned something.

Mary Ann was every bit as opinionated as her husband. A former community college trustee and volunteer for Planned Parenthood, she could go on at length about creating equal opportunities for women and marginalized groups. And she read everything – novels, memoirs, biographies, newspapers and magazines, including her annual subscription to Mother Jones, a bi-monthly publication that aims to expose the evils of the corporate world, government and the mainstream media.

She famously got in the last word during a dinner conversation that has become family legend. Wallie was amazed to discover that one voter in Island County had cast a ballot for communist leader Gus Hall in the presidential election. He wanted to interview that person and get his or her story in the paper, even if that meant granting anonymity.

Mary Ann let him go on a while before she felt the need to interrupt. “Wallie,” she said, “it was me.”

That may have been what earned her the nickname “Red Mary Ann.” Her curiosity and appetite for ideas was tempered with the no-nonsense practicality of a North Dakota farm girl. Besides books for Christmas, she would give us stockings filled with fun diversions (a light-up yo-yo comes to mind) and the annual can of windshield defroster.

She was a feminist, but took a traditional behind-the-scenes role when it came to Wallie and his work as a newspaper publisher, community leader and local historian.  They were both proud of that legacy and rightly so.  Wallie’s efforts helped build Anacortes as well further the career of many an artist and journalist.

Wallie and Mary Ann in front of the painted cutout of Wallie at the Anacortes American newspaper office

 

Relentlessly positive, Wallie sometimes countered complaints and self-pity with a verbal hand slap. (“There you go again with the negativity!”) “Can’t” wasn’t a word he knew. He could talk his way into anything, whether it was a ride-along on a fishing boat bound for the new state of Alaska, or the front row of a Rolling Stones concert to photograph Mick Jagger.

And he had a real talent for raising money to support his causes, including a museum for Anacortes. Nobody said “no” to Wallie, well, at least nobody who agreed with his community view. An outspoken newspaper man, he made his share of enemies, but he earned many more friends.

Wallie loved the spotlight, but he also took genuine pleasure in the accomplishments and good fortunes of others. He frequently asked after my mother, and was delighted to hear that she’d blossomed anew at Seattle’s Norse Home after decades of living alone.

He got misty eyed when I told him about my writing sojourns at the family’s Guemes Island beach house. Having just published his Pictures of the Past: Celebrating 125 Years of Anacortes History, he was awaiting the release of his daughter-in-law’s book. My one selfish regret is that he died before he could hold it in his hands.

But I can’t feel sad about Wallie’s passing. He and Mary Ann, who died in 2008, had long and interesting lives. As my husband wrote in Wallie’s obituary, “His family assumes his afterlife will be no less dull.”

I envision him enjoying one heck of a reunion with all the departed friends and loved ones. Yes, I’m sure he’s getting quite the welcome, Mary Ann smiling behind that characteristic mouth twitch of hers, as if to say, “It’s about time!”

Learning to talk — Facing my fear of public speaking

 

I remember my first oral book report. It was that traumatic. I was in 3rd grade and I’d picked out a super-simple picture book to make it easy on myself. I think it was about frogs. With churning gut and clammy hands, I got up before all those faces and stood frozen while my heart galloped off in flight and my tongue turned to glue. The words I’d practiced in front of the mirror eventually tumbled out of my mouth, possibly in the wrong order, and everything shook — hands, legs, voice. Then it was over.

About all that can be said of my performance is that I didn’t throw up.

I’m sure my teacher took pity on me. Stage fright is cute when you’re nine years old. But I’m going to be 58 later this month, and my phobia isn’t so endearing now. Shouldn’t a woman who has spent her entire adult life working with words be able to speak in front of people?

Thankfully I didn’t have to do too much of that as a newspaper reporter or, later, as a public-relations professional. Most of my interactions were one-on-one. I’m perfectly comfortable asking nosy questions of strangers. But put me in front of an audience, and my lizard brain takes over. Complex thinking goes out the window.

Think I’m being too hard on myself? Consider my experience as part of a panel at a professional conference in the 1990s. I was one of three education reporters addressing a room full of public-relations people representing colleges and universities. We were supposed to give them insights on how they could get more press for their institutions. I was nervous and ill-prepared. My mistake. In introducing myself, I confessed that I received an inordinate amount of PR mail, most of which ended up in recycling.

I felt the air shift. The panelist next to me jumped in and turned on her southern story-telling charm, rolling out anecdote after anecdote, filling my  time, determined not to let me open my mouth again. Then the third panelist took his turn, and they had a fun back and forth, while I sat there pretty much ignored. They continued to ignore me even after the session ended and I tried to be friendly.

Public speaking leads to private shaming. Is it any wonder I prefer to hide inside my turtle shell and let others do the talking?

The irony is, now that I’m home alone trying to write books, I can’t hide any longer. Writing is the art of introverts, it’s true, but at some point, you have to get out there and promote your book if you want anyone outside of your immediate family to read it. Following my novel’s release, I hope to give readings at a couple of Puget Sound-area book stores, including the one two blocks from my house. Such events are de rigueur for authors, but my stomach twists at thought. Flashback to third grade and that disastrous panel discussion.

That’s why I’ve decided, at long last, to get help.  I’ve turned to an organization I first heard about from my 83-year-old mother. Toastmasters began in 1905 as a YMCA club to teach men (women weren’t allowed until 1973) “how to speak, conduct meetings, plan programs and work on committees,” according to their website.

Toastmasters International, as it’s now known, currently has more than 345,000 members and 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Looking up clubs within a five-mile radius of my north Seattle home, I found 50, including two within easy walking distance. Obviously, a whole lot of people want to become “more effective communicators and leaders.”

I don’t know about the leadership part, but I’d like to be able to read from my book without shaking.

So last week, I went to my first meeting. The website for the Notable Northgaters Club spoke to me:

“We know that many people are afraid of public speaking. You might be afraid to visit. We promise we don’t bite, and we also promise that you will not have to give a speech when you visit! . . . We are truly friendly and want to make sure you are comfortable when you come to visit.”

The club meets Wednesday evenings in the basement of a church. I walked in and was immediately greeted by a gentleman (the Toastmaster/host), who asked me if I’d ever been to a meeting. When I said “no,” he seated me next to a woman who introduced herself as Linda and told me what to expect, including my role as a first-time guest, i.e., I could choose to participate or not, and I could come to as many free meetings as I wanted. Super low pressure.

She told me she’d joined Toastmasters because she was applying for work and wanted to be more confident in job interviews. Poised and personable, she seemed to have more than met her goal. I would have hired her on the spot.

After the Toastmaster made formal introductions, a young man, who happened to be the outgoing club president, gave a spirited speech on hip hop. As I understand it, members work their way through manuals, achieving certain milestones or awards by delivering different types of speeches. This particular presentation was to show the speaker’s use of visual and/or audio aids.

Every speech is critiqued by an evaluator who takes notes and a grammarian and “um counter” who listens for grammatical errors and filler words. There’s also a member who keeps track of time, switching on lights (green, yellow, red) to tell the speaker if he or she is about to run over.

It sounds intimidating, but the meeting I attended was buoyantly positive, with frequent laughter and regular applause. (Clapping not only shows appreciation, it also wakes people up, the Toastmaster explained to me.)

At the end of the meeting, I felt so good I actually took the Toastmaster up on his invitation to comment.

“I have a hard time imagining any of you as beginners,” I said, getting proud smiles and a few chuckles. “I’m in awe. You’ve given me something to aspire to. I found this very enjoyable.”

I’d said less than 30 words, yet everyone clapped as if I’d given a speech.

Hm, that was actually kind of fun, I thought as I walked to my car.  I think I’ll be back.

Note to readers: I know I’ve been erratic of late with my  blog. My book journey is picking up steam, and life is about to get much busier. That’s a good thing, but it means less frequent posts for the near future (monthly vs. twice a month). I hope you’re enjoying my ramblings. Please keep those comments coming because I LOVE to hear from you!

Photo credit: Pete

Women ‘By the Wayside’ – An interview with author Anne Leigh Parrish

 

Like many writers, my foray into fiction began with short stories. I guess they’re easier to teach in the span of a college night course than novels, but I’m not sure they’re easier to master. The short story leaves no room for error.  They’re little diamonds, perfectly brilliant.

My friend, Anne Leigh Parrish, has mastered the form. Her work shines, and I’ve been fortunate to have her as a friend and writing mentor for 20 years.  We met at a University of Washington Extension course in literary fiction writing — not that she needed it. I remember my awe at learning that she’d already placed a story in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Since that time, she’s published more than 40 short stories and four books, including one novel, What is Found, What is Lost (She Writes Press, 2014). Her second novel, Women Within, is forthcoming from Black Rose Writing.

By the Wayside (Unsolicited Press, 2017) is her third collection, and it’s another fine one.  With heart and honesty, she pulls you into the lives of women who are trying to move forward and find their true selves in spite of past hurts and those who would dismiss or deny their strengths.

As the title implies, they might start out sidelined by guilt, emotional-scaring and self-doubt, but by the end of the story, either manage to break free (in sometimes dramatic fashion) or arrive at a new understanding about themselves.

Parrish’s writing is spare, but she manages to convey the rich complexity of her characters and their lives with well-chosen details and spot-on dialogue.

In my favorite story, An Act of Concealment, the main character, Anna, is called upon to save her neighbor’s holiday dinner. It’s a seemingly innocent scene, but it reinforces the story’s theme of behind-the-scenes women who protect their family’s (read male) reputations even at the expense of their own.

Smoke begins with the observation that, when it comes to forest fires, “a healthy, living tree was harder to ignite.” It’s the perfect metaphor for a young woman so filled with hate and self-loathing that she can’t give or receive love.

I would describe Parrish as a feminist writer, but her message never feels heavy-handed. She tackles her most political subjects – racism and abortion – in short allegories with some humor.

Magic realism is also used to highlight how blind to the truth people can be. A genie pops out of an engaged couple’s spare-tire compartment (Trial by Luck) to grant them one wish, except these two can’t agree on anything.  In “How She was Found,” a young woman, Fiona, who has been living according to her father’s wishes, discovers an ancient skeleton while on an archaeological dig with a group of men. The men see the discovery in win/gain terms, but Fiona is so captivated by the possible life behind the skeleton that she hears it speak to her.

I could go on siting more stories I enjoyed, but I want to give Anne a chance to answer some questions.  So here we go:

First of all, congratulations on your third collection! What a productive year you’ve had. Is there a secret to your productivity or do you just superglue your butt to the chair and write until the bond wears off? (I’m kidding, sort of.)

Writing gets easier with time. It used to be an awful struggle. I think back to a story I wrote in 2003, “When Every Part of You Breaks.” This was a 5,000-word story that took me almost six months to nail down. I can’t imagine anything taking that long now. Also, my children are in their twenties, and that has meant a world of freedom for me. Having two books come out this year was something of a surprise. I was lucky enough to find two different publishers, one for the collection and one for the novel. I need to keep writing. If I’m not writing or pulling something apart and putting it back together, I just don’t feel right. With the recent launch of By The Wayside, having just finished the first exhaustive round of edits for the publisher of Women Within, and querying agents for my just completed novel, The Amendment, I‘ve got plenty to do in terms of tasks and marketing, but it’s not creative in the way that only writing can be. I can’t stay away too long.

Many of your stories are told from the point of view of girls or women struggling to overcome or escape oppression that is either self-inflicted (in the case of the adults) or inflicted upon them. Why is that?

I put this down to my emerging feminism. I’m obsessed with the boundaries and limitations imposed on women, both from within and without. Women sometimes can be their own worst enemies if they feel they have to live up to an unexamined ideal, one that really doesn’t work for them. They’ll always run into trouble that way, and I’m fascinated by the cognitive disconnect that can occur. Reproductive rights and issues are moving to the top of my list of manias, though the word “mania” implies a pejorative connotation I perhaps don’t intend.

I’m impressed by the range of situations and settings you present so convincingly in these stories. There’s the immigrant newlywed in Huron, North Dakota circa 1920 (An Act of Concealment); the anthropology major on an archaeological dig (How She Was Found); the woman researching mystics to better understand her troubled sister (The Keeper of the Truth); and girls growing up in poverty (The Lillian Girl) and privilege (Letters of Love and Hate). Where do you get your ideas and how much research are you doing to make them come alive?

With stories, an idea usually comes from an image, around which I build the narrative. In “An Act of Concealment,” the final scene was that image. In “How She Was Found,” it was the protagonist holding the skull, looking into its empty eye sockets, and so on. I had to do some research for that particular story, so I could name human bones correctly. As to “The Keeper of The Truth,” I looked up Tarot cards, and the various meanings they held. With “The Lillian Girl,” obviously I had to acquaint myself with the films of Lillian Gish; and for “Letters of Love and Hate,” there really wasn’t any research per se.

You’ve written many more short stories than you have novels. What keeps you coming back to the short form?  

The short form is a break from novel writing and all the marketing and promoting I have to do around my two titles releasing in 2017. Lately, I’ve gotten into flash, variously defined as a story under 1,500 words, or under 1,000 words. These are GREAT fun, and fairly easy to place, so there’s also the element of relatively quick gratification. I learned about writing from writing stories, so I think I’ll always write them, always come back to them. They just feel like home, if that makes sense.

 If you could share one major lesson you’ve learned from your years of writing and publishing, what would that be?

What really matters is whether you’ve written your story to your own satisfaction. There’s no point in being baffled by how someone interprets your work because people will experience it according to their own private paradigm and world-view, and you have no control over what they bring to it.

Can you give us the teaser for your forthcoming novel, Women Within?

For the curious reader, I can say that if feminism—or the female experience—is your thing, something you feel strongly about, you will want to read this book. I show women as caregivers, rape victims, mothers, daughters, failing in love, succeeding in life, struggling with accepted norms about how they should look and act, there’s even one character who poses as someone’s mother when she’s in truth something else (won’t spoil that moment for you).

What else can we expect from you?

The Amendment. This is my third novel, and a sequel to my linked short story collection from 2013, Our Love Could Light The World, where I introduced readers to the Dugan family. The protagonist, Lavinia, is a wry, cynical, feisty soul who suffers a sudden life change. She takes herself on a cross-country road trip and has several weird, sometimes hilarious encounters with strangers.

Thanks, Anne!

Reading aloud to my teenage sons will cost me

Mark reading to kids color (2)

In happier times, my husband, Mark Funk, reading to (L to R) Casey Funk, India Bock, Pierce Bock and Charlie Funk

My boys used to love books and stories. I would read to them in the evenings before bed or in the car on long road trips, or sometimes out on the front porch when the sun was just right — not too hot or glaring.

I read them all my childhood favorites as well new classics, including all seven Harry Potter books and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

Of course I hoped that sharing my love of reading and language would instill in them the same. But mostly I read to them because it was fun, effortless bonding, and they seemed to need and enjoy it as much as I did.

Then they became teenagers.

When my older son, Casey, decided he no longer liked being read to, we were into the third fat book of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, which I thought was lot to invest in a story without the payoff of an ending.

Charlie, my youngest, stopped letting me read to him half way through Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series. He’d just go see the movie, he said, as if that were the same thing.

After that, my offers to read got about the same response as my telling them to clean their rooms. They didn’t even want me in their rooms, let alone sitting on or by their beds. It was like I had mother germs.

I mourned the loss. In the evenings, I’d pace the house, restless, looking longingly at my favorite cozy spot on the love seat next to the fireplace, the abandoned book-in-progress on the end table.

“Are you sure I can’t just read a few pages?” I’d plead.

“No, Mom. Can you leave me alone?”

I knew not to take it personally. They were starting the separation process on the road to adulthood. I understood that. What I didn’t understand was their abandonment of books and reading altogether (unless it was absolutely required by their teachers). I thought all those hours of reading to them would plant the desire to read on their own. It didn’t.

“I hate reading,” they tell me now. Hate is a strong word meant to push my book-loving button, but knowing that doesn’t make their protestations any easier to take.

I hold out hope they’ll come around. They’re still drawn to narratives, just not from books. Most of their attention and free-time is now sucked up by screens — movie, television, computer and cellphone – playing games, watching Netflix, seeing the new Star Wars movie, or reading and composing the shorthand text and Skype messages that substitute for human conversation.

The other day, I quizzed Charlie, now 16, and his friend about reading. (They put up with it because I was buying them lunch.)

What did they like to read? The friend had read Jurassic Park a while back and enjoyed it more than the movie. Okay, there’s hope, I thought, until Charlie reminded me that he hates to read.

I persisted. Did they have friends who liked to read? No, not really. Okay, maybe a couple of girls they knew, but no guys.

Why? Because boys would rather play sports or watch Netflix, and the “nerdy boys” would rather play video games. Charlie said he would rather sleep.

When I pointed out to him that his dad is a male person who loves to read, he said, “Yeah, but he’s old.”

Finally I stopped torturing them and let them finish their food.

As a writer about to send a young-adult novel – my first – into the world, I could choose to be depressed by this conversation. But I refuse to believe it’s as bleak as my son and his friend make it out to be.

The world is full of readers, and they’re not all girls and senior citizens. Which leads me to consider something so bold some might say it’s crazy.

Many a successful writer, including Steven King, has said that you really should read your work aloud to hear the draggy, clunky bits.

That gave me an idea. If I have to read my 85,000-word novel aloud, I may as well read it to someone, preferably a young adult, maybe even a couple of young adults, who would give me feedback on what worked and what didn’t.

Now, I know that the two young adults I have in mind would need some incentive, say, in the form of a large bribe. They’ve already flatly refused to read my draft on their own.

“Maybe after it’s published,” is Casey’s stock answer.

“That won’t help me,” is my stock reply.

So, after much negotiation, he and I finally settled on price: $200, half of which is to be paid up front. Charlie, of course, wants the same amount, but in cash (no bank transfers for him).

Will they be honest in their feedback if I pay for it? Yes, I believe they will. They’ve never tried to spare my feelings.

My best writer friend thinks I’m nuts, and I only told her about the reading aloud part, not about my reluctant audience.

In my place, would you pay your kids to read to them? In my sons’ place, would you take the deal?

Feel free to chime in, even if you agree with my friend that I am indeed insane.

In my next blog post, I’ll report back on what went down . . . if I’m not crying in my pillow.