A New Measure of Success

I’m sitting in the 8th row of the Charleston Civic Center at the West Virginia Book Festival, waiting to hear Erik Larson speak. He wrote one of my all-time favorite books, “Devil in the White City.”

What’s more exciting: I got in a regular seat!

Last year, when I came here to see Neil Gaimon, I had to sit in a folding chair several rows back.

So even though the scales haven’t moved much lately, this sure feels like success.

  • Hey, I’ll take good news wherever I can find it.



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The Joy of an Unproductive Day

On Saturday, I awoke with my usual intentions to check off several items on my grown-up to-do list: mop kitchen floor, pay bills, go grocery shopping, find missing DVD on “gentle yoga,” prepare healthy food, mail Christmas letters in time for January postmark, etc. Instead, I took a long, hot shower and spent extra time on my hair, which already looks younger than the rest of me (thanks, Christine!). Then Phillip announced a craving for Cam’s Ham, so we drove to Huntington and ordered the usual: sugar-flaked ham sandwiches w/special sauce, fries, Pepsi, and oh yeah–a side order of onion rings to share. (In case you haven’t guessed, Cam’s isn’t a health food joint.)

Phillip then suggested a quick visit to Empire Books in Pullman Square. He wanted to read something new and different–not one of the 100 books in his “read this next” pile at home.  He asked for suggestions. Perusing the shelves, I came across this:

Not Phillip’s kind of book, but a tell-all by Bristol Palin’s baby daddy WOULD be a change of pace after all that science fiction. Well, maybe. I checked the Amazon reviews on my iPhone: “I was shocked that I enjoyed this book. I felt ashamed and dirty for reading such trash, but this was surprisingly good trash.” Perfect!

I shared my find with Phillip. He admired Levi’s acting in the cover shot but returned the book to the shelf in his familiar “I’d prefer not to” manner. Oh well. I’d done my best to assist him in his quest and was now free to move around the building (ding!) in search of esoteric wisdom. (Shirley MacLaine and I have no doubt read many of the same books. Don’t judge us.)

I was in the self-help section when a small, red-headed woman approached and said, “I can’t find the psychic section either.” Before I could say, “How did you….,” she held up a book by Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame. “Do you watch this guy’s show on TV?” she asked. “Me neither. But he’s in town. He came into my store, and while he was there, he asked if I watched his show. So I said to him, ‘Mister, unless it’s about psychic abilities or the paranormal, I can guarantee I’ve never seen it.’ He said it was about his family, and they were filming in Huntington. He asked if I thought I’d watch that episode, since it would feature local places, but I told him: Honey, I don’t see the point. Cause I already see local places all the time.”

Had I stayed home to mop, I would have missed that encounter. A sobering thought.

Leaving Pullman Square, I remarked that I’d never shopped at Mack & Dave’s, even though the department store had been in business for 60 years. So we took a brief tour (the offerings were sparse). We were greeted by an older woman with pancake make-up and a hairstyle from 50 years ago. Phillip told me she’d worked there when he was a college student in the late 70s/early 80s and looked the same. Pale-skinned clerks watched from the periphery of the store. Only their eyes seemed to move. Once we were out the door, I recorded a Reminder Note: Write short story about Mack & Dave’s as front for vampire den. Explore possible connections to Mothman, UFO sightings, and Silver Bridge disaster.

At our next stop, Baskin-Robbins (at this point, I’d abandoned all health concerns, along with my to-do list), I was delighted to discover January’s flavor of the month: Chocoholic’s Resolution, “a Swiss-style chocolate ice cream with chocolate ganache cake pieces, white caramel-filled cups, and a chocolate ganache flavored ribbon.” I restricted myself to only two scoops.

It was still daylight when we parked in front of Books & Brews in Hurricane.  A lanky fellow emerged with a bag of books–Gordon Simmons, who ran a used bookstore in Charleston many years ago! It seemed like a good sign. And it was–I found a biography of Elizabeth Bowen (author of The Death of the Heart) and spent most of the next 2 hours looking through a box of magazines (Look, Time, Saturday Evening Post) from the late 40s, 50s, and 60s.

The August 39, 1949 issue of Look featured an article on the battle over sex education. Should schools show the 19-minute film Human Growth (produced by Eddie Albert, who later starred as Oliver in Green Acres!) to junior high school children? Opinions in Middletown, New York, varied. Some citizens favored it, but a Catholic priest said showing the film “without accompanying spiritual guidance, is just obscene.” Mrs. Mae Paddock, who had no children of her own, said, “The kids already know enough as it is.”

In the same issue of Look, an article announced the discovery of “a revolutionary chemical compound…that turns black skin white.” The subtitle says, “When it is perfected, Negroes who use it could ‘pass’ as whites. The article concludes, “Whatever the results it is virtually certain that the discovery will bring a new era. No longer will skin color be a criterion of human ability and acceptance. Monobenzyl may do more for race relations than any other scientific discovery to date. And the color line, the shame of the twentieth century in America, may go forever, as slavery did in the nineteenth.” I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Here’s a link to the article if you don’t believe me: https://chawedrosin.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/1949-look-magazinearticle-on-skin-lightening/

That night, at Bob Evans, I concluded the topsy-turvy day by ordering breakfast for dinner. Phillip and I agreed it had been a while since we’d had such a thoroughly “unproductive” day. Yet those unstructured hours and random encounters with interesting people, places, and ideas had produced something after all: Joy.*

*And maybe an extra pound or two.

Life’s simple pleasures really ARE the best.








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In the recovery room, postsurgery, my first clear thought was, “I’m back online.” The anesthesia had turned off my mind, but now it was active again. My second thought: “If I hadn’t awakened, it would have been an easy death. Not so bad. Not bad at all.”

I became aware of a woman’s voice. A nurse was instructing me to relax my breathing so that my lungs could get their rhythm. I opened my eyes. The room was filled with winged angels–and Ferengi in surgical masks. They looked at me with concern, then faded from view, leaving humans in scrubs in their places.

Instantly I knew I was changed. Not because I was sans my infected gall bladder (which I rightly assumed they’d removed), or because I’d seen aliens (I immediately understood that I was hallucinating), but because I’d experienced time being stopped and restarted.

The feeling of resurrection was powerful. I was sure I now understood things not previously within my grasp, though I couldn’t say exactly what. I thought I would likely do amazing things once I recovered. Climb a tall mountain, write a novel, organize my recipe file. Really, there was no telling.

I wanted to tell the nurse I was glad her training and experience had prompted her to teach me how to breathe. I wanted to say, “Controlling my breath and other things that didn’t need controlling has been a lifelong habit, a bad one, borne of fear, but now, that part of me is gone, along with my diseased organ. It’s amazing. Thank you.” But I couldn’t yet speak.

Later, when I told the surgeon I’d seen Ferengi in the room, she said, “It’s so cool that you know the Ferengi!” We bonded over Star Trek and the fact that she’d saved my life.

For the next few days, as my lingering pancreatitis eased up, meds put a damper on the pain and kept me in an altered state, during which I drifted in and out of awareness and contemplated the mysteries. There was time, and not-time. Consciousness, and not-consciousness. Fear, and not-fear. Sound and silence. Sickness and health. Opposites coexisting peaceably within a wholeness unbound by convention.


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A Year of Change

I love Christmas newsletters, though not everyone is a fan. Said one hater: “They read more like family resumes than letters from friends.” Fear not. Our letter includes nothing to make you feel bad about your own lives by comparison. Please accept our apologies for its length (3 pages instead of the usual 1). It includes pics, so I’m posting it here as a PDF. Click on the link below.

McClure Christmas letter 2014

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A Novel Pursuit

I’ve never written a novel. I’ve published short stories, poems, essays, plays, articles, short memoir, technical manuals, scripts, and skits, but no novel. The thought of sustaining a narrative for hundreds of pages seems overwhelming. Are my stories worth telling? Do I have the energy? Can I finish? Is it morally justifiable, spending that much time on a single book instead of helping the poor and needy? Plagued by doubts, I tend to quit before I start.

Then a Facebook friend mentioned that November is National Novel Writing Month (http://nanowrimo.org/about). I signed up at the last minute with no particular ideas in mind. My previously conceived novel ideas, years old, seemed stale. So I started reading the first lines of favorite novels, hoping for inspiration. I needed an original opening that would hold my interest as well as the reader’s. I needed a compelling voice.

It came to me suddenly, and I started writing. Three hours later, I had posted a short synopsis on the NaNoWriMo site:

Inspired by nature, nurture, alcohol, and religion, three siblings screw up their lives, and their children’s lives, in various ways.

Also, I had written three pages. Here’s a sample:

The signs of imminent screw-ups were there all along, but we didn’t see them, which is natural. Natural in the same way the middle star in Orion’s belt can’t see Orion, or even know that Orion exists. Usually, when you’re in the thick of things, you don’t know the real truth about what’s happening. Even if people tried to explain it, you wouldn’t believe them.

Like, if someone had told me my younger brother, the one who’d torn the head off my doll one Christmas, would be the first of us to father a child, I would have been disturbed. I would have walked out of the house and looked up at the sky, searching for the rumored Creator lurking behind the stars, and said, “Why would you let something like that happen?”

Of course, the way Charlie’s girlfriend described it, the Creator wasn’t actually there in the bed of Charlie’s Ford pickup the night Isaac was begat. Like my own father, the Creator seems to spend an awful lot of time offstage during the Human Drama.

Where did THAT come from? My mind surprised me with the things it came up with. It wanted to play. Maybe it had wanted to play all along. Maybe all I had to do was say yes.


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Last week, I went to the nursing home to see my cousin. I’d had a strong feeling the previous evening that I should visit her, but my book group was meeting that night to discuss Paris Trout, a book I’d selected. So I didn’t feel I could skip the discussion. Plus I wanted to see my friends; I’d missed our September meeting because I’d been in the hospital recovering from surgery.

So I waited until the next day and drove to the nursing home during my lunch hour. But when I signed in and told the receptionist whom I was there to see, she looked at her roster and frowned. “She’s gone.” Then, seeing the shocked look on my face, she added, “To another facility, I mean.”

As it turned out, Anna was indeed gone, and not just to another facility. To another dimension. In fact, she’d crossed over just after midnight. Which meant that if I had followed the prompting I’d received the day before, I might have been there with my cousin at the nearby hospice during her final hours on earth. But now it was too late. Anna was gone.

Fast forward one week to today. A rainy Thursday afternoon. I was writing an article about science education in a rural community in western Nebraska. It was a part of the country I’d driven through at night. Alone on a dark two-lane road with no streetlights, my husband and I had pulled over more than once, turned off the engine, and gazed in wonder at the big October sky, full of stars. More stars than I’d ever seen before. When the teacher I interviewed for my article told me her school was starting a new science program called “Cosmic Connections,” complete with telescopes and star parties, I couldn’t help but think that rural Nebraska was the perfect place to learn from the night sky.

The idea of discovering hidden treasure in your own back yard—or, in the sky directly above it—prompted me to pull a favorite book off the shelf and re-read an observation made by writer Paul Gruchow: “The schools in which I was educated were by most standards first-rate. But they were, as our schools generally are, largely indifferent to the place and to the culture in which they operated. Among my science courses I took two full years of biology, but I never learned that the beautiful meadow at the bottom of my family’s pasture was remnant virgin prairie. We did not spend, so far as I can remember, a single hour on prairies—the landscape in which were immersed.”

Gruchow’s book, Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, had done for me years ago what Dorothy’s trip to Oz had done for her, opening my eyes to just how little I understood or appreciated the beauty and mystery of familiar places. Wendell Berry’s essays had had a similar effect, but I’d had a chance to meet him and tell him so when I was in my twenties. I’d never met Paul Gruchow. I’d never told him how much I loved his book. So I decided I’d look him up online and send him an e-mail. I thought he might appreciate knowing.

But it was too late. A drug overdose in 2004 after years of depression and several suicide attempts. He too was gone, like Anna, and not just to a new address.

We don’t know the worth of water until the well runs dry. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Youth is wasted on the young.

Loss, it seems, is inescapable—in many ways, as familiar as the sky overhead and the grass beneath our feet. So familiar, in fact, that we fail to appreciate the mystery and even beauty of it, to learn from it. Baby teeth tucked under pillows. Bodies tucked under earth. Leaves drifting from trees. Nothing gold can stay. A lesson in the wind: Never or now.

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The Torture List

A terrible thing happened this morning: I completed all the easy items on my to-do list.

At first glance, that might sound like a nice accomplishment. After all, it means the dishes are washed, my toenails are clipped (at least, the ones I can reach), and the house has been purged of junk foods in anticipation of a healthier lifestyle (I’m a little bloated as a result, but I did it!).

Now I’m down to what I call the torture list. This list includes actions required by modern life or common sense–things that are good for you but not very fun. You know, things like “get mammogram,” “see accountant about taxes,” and “maintain even temper while calling phone company to inquire about yet ANOTHER billing error.”

Some of the items on my torture list have been there for months. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I might be using the list as a way to avoid the truly Scary Stuff. After all, as long as I have Important Matters to attend to, I can’t be expected to write the Great American Novel or to volunteer at the hospice, right? (Note to self: Add “find a good therapist” to list.)

I’d been thinking about this dilemma all afternoon when, just now, I checked Facebook (an excellent tool for procrastinators, by the way) and read a sobering post about the devastating effects of this week’s earthquake in Haiti. The news prompted me to consider what must be on the to-do lists of the survivors: find food and water, help bury the dead, look for missing family members.

I’d say that’s what a torture list really looks like. It certainly puts things into perspective. My complaints seem trivial in comparison. So . . .

Instead of adding “Donate to Red Cross” to my list, I’ve visited the Red Cross Web site and made an immediate donation.

Also, I’ve retitled the remaining items on my list: “Yucky to-do’s that I’m lucky to do.” This afternoon, I realized that what’s on my list might be unpleasant but doesn’t really qualify as “torture.”

Thank God.


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