Just Start Gayle, Just Start: Chance Encounters at a Barry Manilow Concert

She tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Do you know how to make this light stick work?”  My daughter Gigi took her light stick, cracked it and made it glow to its warm red color.  “It’s easy, see?” Gigi said, adding, “Are you at the concert by yourself?”  Gayle was attending alone, sitting behind us in Row D.  At 11 years old, Gigi didn’t even know who Barry Manilow was.  At quite a bit over 11, I remembered Barry Manilow from high school but wouldn’t have bought tickets to a concert then or probably now.  But our friend Ann’s mother had taken ill and she gave us the tickets just days before.  What a hoot, I thought, to see Barry Manilow live.  Gigi and I went to YouTube the night before and played more than a few Barry Manilow videos to prepare ourselves.

Now, we readied our light sticks which I imagine are the modern equivalent of cigarette-lighters-at-concerts from back in the day and we began to talk to Gayle.  This was her more than 20th Barry Manilow concert and she had loved him since she was 10.  Gigi and I felt a little sheepish admitting we were even at the concert much less that it was our first one and that we were only in Row C by the accident of a friend’s mother’s illness.

The 7:30 start time at The Chicago Theater came and went and we continued talking to Gayle.  She lived downtown and worked at a social media company.  Oh, and she told us she was a writer of sorts, secretly writing short stories about life without the courage to try to publish any of them.  I couldn’t resist.  “Gayle, you are in social media.  Of all people you know about creating a platform for writing.  You just have to start.  Start with a blog,” I suggested.

“It’s funny you say that,” she mused.  “Just this morning I went to a program on social media and the advice was that there is never a good starting point so you just have to start.  What are the chances I’d hear the very same message on the very same day.”

“The chances are very good,” I said, drawing on my own experiences with this sort of serendipity.  “When we are ready to do something, I think we get the same message many times over.  It’s just that we work very hard to ignore it.  Gayle, the universe is telling you to just start.  Take it from me, you should just get started.”

It was 8:10 p.m. and an announcer finally let us know that the concert was minutes from starting.  Gigi waved her glow stick in anticipation.  The crowd filled in while we were talking and the theater was now full.

“You know Gayle, Gigi and I were not supposed to be at this concert.  It’s only through serendipity that we are.  You want to write.  I’m in the same boat.  Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that we connected,” I said.

Gayle nodded her agreement and handed me her card.  “Stranger things have happened.  I think I need to get started with my blog.”

The curtain rose and all lights were on Barry Manilow.  He opened with It’s a Miracle.

As the Chicago Tribune said in its review of the evening, even now he writes the songs that make his fans sing.

With so much inspiration in the air, it was nice to find some of our own.

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Research: The Last Leg(s) of the Process

When I started my book project, the concept of research seemed counter-intuitive to me.  Why would I have to research my own story?  Didn’t I know my own story well enough to write it?

In short order, my pesky assumption unraveled.   Even though I know my own perspective, I wanted to interview relatives, find medical records, seek out old letters and documents and as the proverbial “last leg” of the research, investigate newspapers from back in the day to see if any empirical evidence of my accident on the stove existed.  That is, was there even a fire call listed in the paper that day? 

The need to fill in the lines brought me to micro film and an intra-library loan (https://annegallagher8.wordpress.com/2011/07/03/intra-library-loan-time/).  When I arrived at the Harold Washington Library and headed up to the intra-library loan department, I received eight small cardboard boxes, each held tight with a rubber band and each containing a month of the Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1964.  Microfilm readers are cumbersome boxes reminiscent of ancient technology.  For many years however they were the best way to preserve newspapers, rare books and other culturally irreplaceable material.

I hadn’t used a microfilm reader since high school and asked for help from the reading room librarian.  Pulling the roll of film out of the box, she showed me how to load it on to the reader like you would an old reel-to-reel movie on a projector.  Once the film loaded, she showed me the various controls to move from page to page and to size the film on the screen. 

As I hand-scrolled through the newspapers, I got lost in the details of the day.  High taxes were an issue.  St. Joseph Academy and Premontre were hosting a joint Catholic college night.  November weather was partly cloudy with a low near 28 and a high projected at 50 degrees.  The Green Bay Packers were playing the Dallas Cowboys on an upcoming Sunday (they won 45-21) and the comic pages contained Marmaduke, Ponytail, Kerry Drake, Beetle Bailey and Blondie.  President Kennedy had died the year before.  Johnson was President.

There was not a single fire call or news item that mentioned me or my accident.  I put the last roll of microfilm back its box and returned it to the desk. 

By now, I’d interviewed a number of relatives, received as many medical records as probably existed, found old letters and my baby book with my mother’s hand-inscribed account of the accident (https://annegallagher8.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/happy-burn-iversary/). That seemed enough to complete my research even if there was no record in the local newspaper.  Or was there? 

Since the stories said that I was variously 2 or 3 when the accident happened, maybe I searched the wrong year for the newspaper. 

I returned to the reference desk and ordered the Green Bay Press-Gazette on micro film for 1965 and 1966.  If this is the last leg of my research phase, I’ll need to be thorough.

Intra-Library Loan Time

9th level of the Harold Washington Library (Ch...

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Most of my research for Anne on Fire is now complete.  I’ve spoken with willing relatives and friends who knew details from my burn accident years ago or who knew my parents at the time.  I’ve requested as many medical records as possible, learning that there are some that simply are gone.  I’ve contacted doctors who worked on my case.  All in all, it’s been a fabulous and enlightening process where I’ve tried to cover the proverbial waterfront of information for clues and insight.  I was going over my findings with my friend Gloria when she said, “Gallagher, have you looked in the newspapers from that time to see if anything was published?  You know, a fire call, a news item.”

I hadn’t.  It was a great idea and prompted my call to the Brown County library (pictured here as is the interior of the Harold Washington Library), where of course they have old editions of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.  In our techno-driven age, most newspapers before the mid-1990s are not searchable online but preserved on micro-film.  Another call to the Harold Washington Library to request an intra-library loan…..and a stash of micro-film is on its way to Chicago.

My gut tells me there will be nothing useful for me in these newspapers.  At the same time, I can’t wait to wade through them on the micro-film machine.  You never know what you might find unless you look.  The process also brings about a sweet sense of closure to my search for information.  It motivates me to get back to the business of writing up the story. 

The Power of Validation

Yesterday my sister Kathleen, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, won the coveted and prestigious Pulitzer Prize for reportinghttp://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/120091754.html).  It was a triumph on many levels and today when we talked, the conversation turned to the power of validation.  Early in her reporting career, she was told she didn’t have the chops to be a reporter.  It was a comment that stayed with her.  I remember some of her early struggles to get a toe-hold in this competitive field, all of which made her award more tender and meaningful to me.  We laughed about how it only took her 20 years to be an overnight success. 

While the award is wonderful and hopefully opens doors for Kathleen, she is the same sister I’ve always known.  We joked about that as well.  She was the prototypical bohemian college student who wore her hair in cornrows and shopped at Ragstock on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin.  I was the preppy overachiever who joined all the clubs.  Yet she was determined (we might have called it stubborn back in the day), smart and sassy then and is now. 

But there is something about getting the professional validation that the person knew was there all along.  Suddenly people pay attention and as Kathleen said to me, “They listen now.” 

I ain’t no Pulitzer Prize winner to be sure but I get “validation” in a way I didn’t anticipate from writing this blog and working (albeit slowly) on my book.  None of the stories I’ve told about myself are revelations to me.  I feel like I’ve told these same yarns for years to different people in different ways at different times.  Compiled together they have a power that they didn’t have separately and spoken stories.  “I love reading your blog,” or “This must be cathartic for you,” or “I never knew you felt that way” or “Do you think you need therapy?” — are all variations of comments I’ve received and appreciated. 

What I’ve learned is that there is a power in compilation, in written synthesis, in telling personal truths that are essentially, variations on the same personal truths that everyone thinks about, feels or chooses not to think about.  It’s more enjoyable than I might have thought and the little blog posts here and there motivate me to continue on in what is the somewhat laborious process of taking life’s story and turning it into readable literary arc.

And Now, A Message from Our Sponsor

Graphic depiction of number of posts per year ...

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Regular readers of Anne On Fire know there is no sponsor for this small blog.  However, after six months of regular posts it seemed appropriate to take a commercial break from the storyline to update readers on a couple of things.  First, we just hit our 3,000th view.  This seems, well, ridiculously miniscule given all the big bloggers out there.  But when Anne on Fire started, I wasn’t sure it would make it past its second post.  Now, there have been dozens of posts (hopefully not too many but as in the story of the Three Bears, something “just right”) and more importantly,there have been more comments than posts.  In fact, more than double the comments for each blog post.  This either tells me people like to comment, or that there is a wonderful support network out there, or that maybe these posts hold the interest of our dear readers – or some combination of all of the above, none of the above or just some good stuff.

 Also on the good news front, my critique professional “K” let me know she saw some hope in moving ahead with the Anne on Fire book.  This is certainly encouraging and certainly means more work for me on that front and more posts to come as the blog continues to be the platform for research and an unfolding storyline.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blogging…….

Waiting for Critique

In the memoir genre, about 70,000 words forms a standard book.  As I cruised past 40,000 words on my project, I thought about the haphazard content I’d typed in double-spaced format.  It was likely time for a professional review and I turned to my cousin Cindy in Los Angeles, who had mentioned she had some writing contacts if I were ever in the market for them.  Cindy dutifully sent along “M”‘s name and put us in touch. As it turns out, M had an intimidating writing pedigree, schooled at a well-known college under the tutelage of a renowned American author, as well as having several published titles to her name.  When I laid out my story, an amazing thing happened.  M told me that she too had been burned at a young age, a casualty of trying to be cool by smoking in a closet.  “Unless I wear a short sleeve top, no one notices,” she said referencing the burns on her arm.  What are the chances that I’d so quickly find a writing professional who would understand the very personal nature of burns?  As luck would have it, M’s plate was full and she did not have time to serve as my critique professional.  Instead, she put me in touch with her similarly pedigreed writing friend “K”. Eagerly I contacted K, who did not have a burn injury to share but rather a witty life story of life as an outsider of sorts in southern Indiana.  More importantly, she had time at hand.  After some hand-wringing, I looked over my project, divided it into 3 parts, packaged up Part I as ready fir review, closed my eyes and hit the “send” button.  And now I wait.  Wondering if my book, or at least the initial piece of it, might pass professional muster,  might have story enough to be told that it has a literary life.  And I wait.