Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The day we almost ‘bought it’

I’d never been in a canoe until just after I was married, but I fell in love with the sport nearly as soon as I discovered it. Our first canoeing excursions were on the quiet Chain O’ Lakes near Waupaca, Wisconsin – a place with no motorboats, no current – just still, calm waters, sometimes deep, other times so shallow you had to get out, pick up your canoe and carry it.

As often happens in life, a short time later canoeing took a back seat to everything else – working, caring for kids and laundry and yards and homes and all those other things that tug at our lives when we’re just, well, “living,” I guess.

Decades after those first canoe trips, my husband and I were on a mini-vacation to Missouri. We spent a couple days in Branson, and then meandered our way back across the bottom – the hilly, curvy bottom – of that state, eventually working our way back up to the little town of Eminence on the Current River, where we planned to canoe.

We arrived shortly after a period of heavy rains, so the river was “high and fast,” we were warned. Yes, it was a lot different than the canoeing we’d done in Wisconsin in our much younger years, but we felt pretty good about how well we worked together paddling the canoe.

Gee, maybe we still had it after all those years, after all.

“We should do this more often,” we thought.

Our confidence regained, sometime later we journeyed down to Eminence again, maybe the same year, maybe the next. The exact time doesn’t matter as much as the adventure itself. This time we took our then teenaged daughter with us. Years spent canoeing at summer camp – first as a camper, later as a counselor – made her well-qualified as a companion on our river jaunt.

This time, the water was lower and slower. We went along quite well, until we came to a log jam. As we tried to skirt it, the current grabbed our canoe, flipped it, and before we knew what happened, the power of the water sucked the canoe upside down. It rested on the river bottom, wedged against a brush pile.

The water was over our heads and none of us had the strength or stamina to dive down and turn the canoe upright. We knew we were in deep doo-doo. We’d been on the river more than two hours and only seen a couple other canoes, but we knew we couldn’t get out of this jam without some help.

We waited for what seemed like forever, though it was probably only an hour. Then, we heard a noise, not coming downstream as we had, but up. It was a Missouri native in a john boat with a small motor. We explained our dilemma and asked if he could let the outfitters know of our plight. He did better than that. This kind soul offered to dive down, un-wedge the boat and turn it upright. He even dove down a second and a third time to retrieve our belongings.

What was the likelihood that that man would have the day off work, be out fishing with his kids and come upon us, stranded there on the river?

We still marvel at that and we still breathe a sigh of relief – or is it a prayer of thanksgiving or both? – that we didn’t go down with the “ship” the day we almost bought it on the Current River.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Lessons from a patriarch

From time to time, as they do in real life, my musings will take me back to earlier days, special people and memories worth living anew. This piece “From the archives” was my tribute to a special uncle on his passing a few years ago.

I didn't see my Uncle Vernon often, because after World War II he left the prairies of Illinois to raise his family in California. But, every few years, he and his family would come by train to stay at my grandparents. When I think of my uncle, I can't help but remember waiting anxiously for them to arrive at a big old depot that is no more.

When God was handing out uncles, I hit the jackpot. I didn’t get just one or two. Between my dad’s and mother’s sides of the family, I got eleven.

Uncle Vernon was the oldest, and though nearly 2,000 miles separated us, his love and wisdom seemed to catch an eastward wind and blow back to his home state of Illinois.

Our chances to visit through the years were much less frequent than I would have wished, but the lessons I learned from the distant patriarch of our clan will stay with me forever.

  • Go west, young man (or east or wherever it is you belong), but do it.
  • Watch for trains in the distance. You never know when they’ll come bearing loved ones.
  • Savor old depots with warm wooden benches and Chiclets gum machines (or any other old building whose walls hold stories of days gone by).
  • Love your brothers – and love your cousins as if they were brothers.
  • Work hard and retire harder.
  • Make your golden years platinum.
  • See the world.

And there’s that one lesson he gently taught me that I didn’t learn very well: Just be quiet and listen.

As I think back, I can’t remember many of the words my uncle said – probably because I was too busy doing all the talking - but I can remember that he always listened.

And when he listened, Uncle Vernon’s eyes spoke for him, saying ever so gently, “I love you.”

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Road trippin’ next to Route 66


I had to giggle as I realized the name of the train I was taking home from a recent visit to the St. Louis area.

I, Lincoln Buff 2, had a ticket to Lincoln on the Lincoln Service. I snickered to myself as I heard the name of the train called out in the station, reported to the conductor that I was “Lincoln Buff 2 to Lincoln on the Lincoln,” and smiled as I posted my status on Facebook.

In fact, I was still smiling more than an hour later as I wrote the musings below.

Looking out the train’s window, I realize that for much of the journey, the tracks run parallel to the iconic highway, Route 66. From time to time, I see undeveloped timberland very much like the timbers in Sangamon County where Lincoln lived for so many years – woods full of bramble bushes, water-slogged low spots and centuries of leaves falling one on another year after year.

For much of the trip I can also see I-55 – that hustling, bustling always-at-least-four-lane-sometimes-more road, built to make an easier, faster thoroughfare between Chicago and St. Louis. It does the second, of course – makes it faster.

Easier, I think, is relative. Is it easier to have to dodge 80-mile-an-hour weavers, who change lanes on a 65-mile-an-hour highway faster than a fickle teenaged girl changes boyfriends?

I like to think easier today is taking that old road, Historic Route 66, or taking the train and having time to muse.

What strikes me most on this journey is the tranquility, the time to sit here and, if I wish, just do nothing. Or, if I’d like, reflect upon my journey, wonder about the people living in the homes and on the farms along the tracks, wonder about the stories of the people sitting near me on the train. Where have they been, where are they going, what baggage do they have besides what they’ve stowed near the door, on the overhead rack or under their seats?

To a writer, everything is a story – things like the town we just passed through with its old abandoned school, businesses and tumble-down homes. I wonder, as I look, which makes for the more interesting story – the “real” one or the one I create as I look out the window?

Thank goodness for lonely two-lane highways and passenger trains. They give us what we rarely give ourselves – time to think, time to imagine and, if we’re lucky, time to unwittingly overhear the phone conversation of a fellow passenger checking up on his mother, encouraging a friend and gently guiding a family member facing a decision. I like that guy sitting behind me without even turning to meet him. It’s the caring in his voice, I guess.

I love the peace and quiet, the time to think, the time to write – but don’t you wonder sometimes what it might be like to visit for a bit one-on-one with a fellow passenger, to hear her stories? I do that, too, sometimes, and they always seem to include twists and turns, trials and triumphs greater than what I could have dreamed up on my own.

Do you suppose the seat we end up in on such a journey is there waiting for us so lives can touch – if only for a few minutes – so we can be comforted or show caring, receive affirmation or provide encouragement?

Imagine the stories those rail cars could share if only they, too, were storytellers.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Been to a tea party lately?


Macho men, humor me for a little while, please. Even you may find some memories worth reliving here.

Ladies and gents, stop for a few minutes and pretend you’re four years old.

You’re sitting around a kid-sized table or a coffee table or one of those Little Tykes picnic tables. You’re there with your best teddy bear, stuffed dinosaur or favorite action figure, your closest friend, and maybe even the sometimes annoying little neighbor kid.

On the table in front of you are some toy china dishes, or plastic or painted aluminum cups and saucers. You’ve got some lemonade – real or imagined – and handful of cookies. (No, you didn’t wash your hands before reaching in the cookie jar. Mom knows it, but she didn’t say anything this once.)

For the little bit of time your child-sized attention span keeps you there, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. You poured the imaginary “tea” without spilling (not much anyway), you got to eat your favorite treat, licking the white stuff out of the middle of the chocolate sandwich cookie without getting in trouble for doing it, and, in hosting the party, you made someone else feel special, be it a fuzzy creature or a snot-nosed kid.

Do you ever long for carefree days like that and a time when you felt all grown up, but without the worries of adulthood?

I love it when my kids have ideas that are so smart I think to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Recently, when my youngest daughter had her first child, her older sister said, “I’m glad it’s a girl. Now we can have a tea party for the shower.”

And, that’s exactly what we did – using cups, saucers and serving pieces from three of the baby’s great-great grandmas and a great-great-great aunt and the toy china my sisters and I used for our tea parties. The babysitter who hosted spontaneous tea parties for my daughters when they were four-year-olds was gracious and let us host this one at her home, too.

I bet if you asked, each of the four generations present would tell you the afternoon was as magical as if they were youngsters again. There is just something about a cup of tea, sweets and good company that makes you feel young, special and carefree again, no matter how old you are.

If you haven’t tried it lately, leave your cares behind, brew up a pot of tea and sit down cross-legged in front of the coffee table to sip from a china cup. We won’t even tell anyone if you dig through the attic to find that old purple dinosaur so he can join you.

While you’re at it – go ahead, eat sugar cubes together for old time’s sake.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

No time to read

A writer friend of mine, Jennifer Niven, whose work and work ethic I admire, has a blog called “No time to bowl.”

I won’t steal her story by telling you why it is named so. You can find out for yourself here.

Jennifer’s blog title reminds me of all the years I thought I had “no time to read.” Perhaps you feel the same way.

Here’s what I now know about “no time.”

When I was a little girl, I loved having stories read to me. Later, when I could read myself, I couldn’t get enough of books and the tales they held between their covers.

Heck, I even read between the covers of my bed, using a flashlight to flip through the pages when I was supposed to be sleeping. I kept at that until I started high school, at least. It was then, I think, that boys became nearly as important to me – or perhaps more so – than books.

When I was sixteen, I began to work, going to school by day, cashiering in a grocery store at night. I guess I thought I didn’t have time to “read” anymore. I don’t remember many stolen moments with books in those years.

In college, it seemed most of what I read was that “required” stuff, then I got married had kids and kept working. My reading was limited to the newspaper, a magazine from time to time, and a few books I’d begin here and there when I wasn’t too tired to read.

I really didn’t turn to books again in earnest until I returned to school when I was nearly 40, and even after that, I sometimes went great lengths of time without making it through an entire volume.

It was many years later that I realized that, during those “no time to read” years, I was reading all along.

My job as a cashier in a grocery store, encountering hundreds of people day in and day out, was like an entirely new lending library. Each day was a fresh page upon which I could read not words, but people. They were as different as they were the same, and each encounter, each experience taught me something new, if not about that individual, then about humankind or the way the species interacts, one being with another.

So, where ever you are, what ever you’re doing, unless you’re locked in a cave away from the human race, when you have “no time” to read books, there is something just as interesting to read.

It’s people.

Try it. You might just see what you’ve been missing.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Why I don’t play Words With Friends

Was there ever a time in your life when you just knew—with all certainty, beyond any shadow of a doubt—that you had best not try something if you knew what was good for you?

If you’re like me, you’ve hit those crossroads a time or two in your life. Once in a while, you may have done whatever-it-was anyway. Other times, it was a “Nah, not worth it.” And, then there were those times when you just knew, “If I cross that bridge, there is no coming back, never, no way, no how.”

Been there, done that. Hit each of these crossroads a time or two.

Done whatever-it-was-anyway?

The video arcade game Centipede.

It was the spring of 1982. I was pregnant with my youngest daughter. The grocery store where I worked had a couple of video games, and I found Centipede—or it found me. I’d tried Ms PacMan, but I’ll be honest with you. When they were handing out coordination, I must have been on a break or something. I missed my serving, so Ms PacMan wasn’t for me.

Centipede, though, was a different thing. As I played it … and played it … and played it, I got better and better and better. I’d play it on my lunch hours. I’d play it for a while after work and I’d probably still be playing it now, if it weren’t for the daughter I had the summer of that year.

After six weeks off work, my Centipede skills had slipped a bit. Okay, they’d slipped a lot.

And, besides that, this cute little girl was waiting for me to come breastfeed her on my lunch break and after work. I figured it was better to feed the kid than to shoot at the centipedes. Wouldn’t want the poor kid starving, now, would I?

And, besides that, I didn’t want to have to tell my husband or the sitter that I’d used up the diaper money on a video game.

“Nah, not worth it.”


Didn’t have to think twice about that. I know a lot of people my age tried it. And, some said they didn't inhale. R-i-i-i-g-h-t...

I didn’t know if smoking pot was a “cross that bridge, you’re not coming back.” I did know it was a bridge I didn’t want to cross at all. If I looked at someone cross-eyed, I got caught, so I sure the heck wasn’t about to do something illegal and have to explain to my parents why I thought I needed to do it.

Anyway, I knew I didn’t need to smoke it. I was silly enough without consuming something to make me sillier.

But, Words with Friends?

I can’t go there.

I know I can’t, and here’s why.

I love words. I really, really, really love words. I’m addicted to words – the way they look on a page, the way you can weave them together to tell stories, express your love or thank someone for their kindness or for reading what you’ve written.

If I started playing with words with my friends, I’d be up before the break of day, playing long after I should have showered and begun my day’s work, skipping lunch, neglecting supper and laundry and bills, and forgetting to go to bed.

I’d surely run through all my existing friends, driving them away as I begged, “Oh, c’mon, just one more game,” and I’d be on a mad voyage across the virtual globe making new friends to replace the ones I’d worn out.

Oh, and besides the word “addiction,” there is just one more reason.

I might get beat.

So friends, I love you, but I am a little worried about your words.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

When the vets came marching in

A teenaged reflection during the war in Vietnam

From time to time, as they do in real life, my musings will take me back to earlier days, special people and memories worth living anew.

I was a teen in the sixties and most of what I remember about the war in Vietnam was wishing that we weren’t there. It just didn’t seem right to send our boys off somewhere to fight for something I didn’t understand, and it was easy to get on the “Make love, not war” bandwagon, to sing antiwar songs and wear peace symbol necklaces.

Later as I grew older and, especially after I married a Vietnam vet, I was embarrassed by the way we treated these young men upon their return, many of whom probably wished as much as we did that they didn’t have to go into those godforsaken jungles.

As I was looking through my earlier work, I ran across this piece in a notebook from English class during my sophomore year of high school. Please forgive my passive voice and not-yet-developed skills as a writer. This little article “From the archives” captured a moment in history even I don’t remember. Though the grammar and syntax would be much different were I to write this piece today, I think it’s worth sharing.

Oct. 5, 1967, Galesburg, Ill.

Friday, Sept. 29, 1967 was a big day for Galesburg. It was the day the Vietnam vets would come “marching in.”

They didn’t march, however. They rode through the streets of Galesburg in cars furnished by local auto agencies.

[The vets] arrived about 2:45 p.m., 45 minutes later than their expected arrival time. The parade began at about 3 p.m.

These men were welcomed to Galesburg from Great Lakes Naval Hospital by crowds of about 8,000 people, many of whom waved flags. Some people had flags so large they hung them out windows of downtown buildings.

Two Costa [High School] boys had an extremely large flag hanging from a third story window above Bowman’s Shoe Store.

Seeing the vets was an experience I’ll never forget. When I was going home Friday afternoon, we drove by the Travelodge, where the veterans were staying. Two of them waved when we waved, and I was thrilled tremendously.

Their activities Saturday consisted of lunch at local homes, and an afternoon of bowling, miniature golf or relaxation.

I walked by two of them Friday, and when they answered my “Hello” with a cheery “Hello,” it made my spine tickle, I was so thrilled.

Saturday evening, they were guests of honor at a dance at Hotel Custer escorted by Galesburg girls. We drove by Hotel Custer at about 9:30, and it looked as if all were enjoying themselves.

Sunday the veterans were treated to a brunch at The Huddle, a visit to Carl Sandburg’s Memorial Service and a steak dinner at Harbor Lights before leaving Galesburg at 6:00 p.m.

Jan. 7, 2012

About 20 years ago, when I was taking a class on the literature of Illinois at Western Illinois University, my professor, John E. Hallwas, talked about the way memory is always reshaping itself.

As the Vietnam War ran on and after it ended, the memories I had of those days were of how poorly we treated our vets upon their return to the U.S.

I’d not just reshaped the memory of that day. I’d blocked it completely.

Finding this essay now doesn’t undo the way we did our Vietnam vets wrong, but it does make me feel thankful that on that weekend in September 1967, my hometown extended a warm welcome to this group of young men who had given so much.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

A remedy for the wanna-be-a-writer blues

Feeling a little down in the dumps these days?
  • You want to be a writer, but you don’t know where to start.
  • Your teacher or someone in your writers’ group said you don’t even have enough talent to fill a thimble.
  • Your parents or your husband tell you to “get a life,” and while you’re at it, get a job that pays the bills.
  • You just got another rejection slip.

Perhaps what you need is a dose of soup, chicken soup. It’s amazing the healing power this old-fashioned remedy can have.

In an earlier blog post, I gave some advice for writer wannabes. I’ve always believed you can not be a writer if you’re not a reader. Reading opens new worlds, spawns ideas, provides examples of what works and what doesn’t as words play together on a page.

If you’re like me, a book brings as much comfort to you as your grandmother’s old cat Snuggles does to her. You “don’t leave home without” one.

You probably already know the books you like and the ones you don’t – the writers who touch you and entertain you and the ones who do absolutely nothing at all for you. Whether you know it or not, you’re learning from each and every one of them – what to do, what not to do, how to build a sentence and when you don’t even need a full sentence.

But there’s one genre of books you don’t want to overlook. They’re books for and about writers. In coming blog posts, I’ll share some of the ones I’ve read and what I’ve learned from each and every one of them.

Yes, even the bad ones have at least one good lesson in them.

If you’re looking for a remedy for what ails you, when you’re doubting yourself as a writer and feel as if everyone else is, too, pick up a copy of Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul. It contains 80-some stories about writers, ranging from Ray Bradbury to Richard Paul Evans and Sue Grafton. You’ll read – usually first-hand accounts – of their doubts, determination, willpower, work ethic, struggles, mentors, supporters and more.

But most of all, as you slurp your chicken soup and some of it dribbles down your chin, you’ll know you’re not the first to do so and you won’t be the last. Each of these writers can show you a figurative t-shirt with years of soup stains and another which has emblazoned across the chest, “I’m a writer – and darned proud to be one!”

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Looking for balance – have you seen her?

I’m not real big on setting New Year’s resolutions.

I’m more about dreaming big and trying to make them come true than I am on setting myself up for failure by saying I’m going to do something I pretty well know I’m not going to complete – like getting back to my high school weight or reading a book a week or working out every day come hell or high water.

So, most years I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but every year, for the last five, around the time of my birthday I’ve created or revised the equivalent of a bucket list.

I first got the idea from my friend Diana, who gave a speech at Toastmasters about her “50 at 50.” When she hit the half-century mark, Diana made a list of things she wanted to do. At the time of the speech, just a few short years later, she’d already done some of them – big things, like getting her master’s degree and presenting at an industry conference.

I was about 50 when I learned of Diana’s speech, but it took me until I was 55 to put the words to paper and create my equivalent of Diana’s list.

My “55 at 55” list had some way-far-out-there dreams like meeting my favorite author, some fun things like hearing my favorite musicians in concert, some feel-good things like reading books I’d always wanted to read and some things I could share with my hubby like places we’d like to visit.

Each year I’ve crossed a few things off of that list. The Lincoln Bicentennial year was a big one for that. I went places and met people I’d had on my list since the beginning. Through the years, I’ve removed some things, replaced them with others that, over time, mean more to me. And, when really, really cool things happen unexpectedly, like meeting the actor Anthony Zerbe, things I never dreamed of get added to the list just so I can cross them off and say, “Did it! Wow!”

As I’ve seen a number of dreams I never would have dared to dream come true over the past few years, I’d like to think that writing them down played a part. I’d like to think my friend Diana deserves some of the credit.

And, now it’s spreading. Last year about this time, when I had a similar discussion with some of my Facebook friends, my cousin in California made his own list. Since then, he’s taken a voiceover class and got a chance to read a book on tape, just a wee little book—NOT! He narrated an audio version of the Bible.

I’m willing to bet that when Diana gave that speech nearly a decade ago, she thought she was delivering it just to the 15 or 20 people in the Toastmasters meeting. But, a mutual friend shared it with me, and through me, it reached my cousin. Who knows where the ripple will stop.

It just goes to show, we should always dare to throw that pebble. Its impact can often be felt oceans away.

But back to that resolution…

I’m not big on setting New Year’s resolutions, but if there were one thing I’d like to find this year, it’s balance.

I’m pretty good at doing one thing at a time and doing it well.

Well, actually, the word is obsessed. I get obsessed.

In 2008, my obsessive tendencies helped me achieve a 35-pound weight loss and develop a two-hour-a-day exercise habit.

In 2009, they led to an award-winning Lincoln bicentennial campaign, consisting of more than 200 blog posts and 3,000 tweets—and I gained the 35 pounds back because I quit working out.

In 2010, I quit blogging to write my first manuscript.

In 2011, I stopped writing to renovate my house and begin a new career.

In 2012, I’d just like to find balance so I could lose some of that weight again, keep this new blog going, finish a couple more manuscripts, do a good job in my new career and begin renovations on my next home.

Oh, and just one more thing.

As I move from obsession to obsession, my husband asks if I’m going to pencil him into my appointment book.

Note to self: When shopping for balance, buy appointment book.

I’m not big on keeping New Year’s resolutions, but I just might be able to keep an appointment or two.

Oh, no!

What if the appointment book becomes an obsession?

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

10,000 tweets later

By the time you read this article, I will have hit a milestone. As I write this, I am at 9,999 tweets since I opened my @lincolnbuff2 Twitter account almost three years ago.

The first time I remember tweeting was on the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Feb. 12, 2009. I was in a conference room at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum tweeting about an event held in commemoration of the bicentennial.

I’d already been blogging for nearly four months at the time, and I’d heard about this thing, Twitter. I liked the social media interaction on the blog and the way it was helping me spread word about the year-long bicentennial celebration and Lincoln’s life and legacy.

As I sat there next to the back door of the conference room, I wasn’t too sure what I was doing, and the looks I got from others seemed to say, “How rude! Why are you ‘texting’ in the middle of this esteemed scholar’s presentation?”

Their looks of disapproval were enough to make me stop after a handful of tweets and put my phone away.

As the bicentennial year and my social media presence progressed, I became more comfortable on Twitter.

By the time of the Lincoln Forum symposium at Gettysburg in November, I was so comfortable on the social media platform that I was the first person to ever live-tweet a forum lecture. The highlight of my day was when a follower tweeted a question, which I presented in the open-mic Q & A period at the end of the lecture.

Imagine what it felt like to have the presenting scholar say, “Well, I think that’s a forum first!”

It was history—and, somehow, deep in my heart, I was sure Abraham Lincoln himself was looking down, smiling on that moment. I’m convinced the president who was so mesmerized by technology and who spent so many long hours in the telegraph office during the Civil War would be using Twitter himself, if he were here with us today.

Through Twitter, I’ve build friendships around the world, talking social media with an enthusiastic young social media expert from Malaysia, lifting a toast with a cup of Joe from time to time with a cameraman in D.C. and sharing a lemon pie recipe with an author whose work I’ve admired for more than four decades.

In the more than three years since I began my first blog, Lincoln Buff 2, with its 200-plus posts celebrating the sixteenth president, Twitter also led me to a new career, as a co-editor for a health care communication website. The job post listed “lives and breathes social media” as a requirement.

My family will tell you that I do just that.

And now, with my new blog, “Musings on Route 66,” I’ll use my words to share my enthusiasm for other things—such as writing, being a baby boomer, living in Illinois and Missouri, loving old airplanes and steam engines, treasuring books, being inspired by people who have dreams and achieve them, and just plain loving life.

If you’d told me 10,000 tweets ago that social media would have led me to new friends, supportive mentors, and a new career, I would have asked, “How can 140 characters do that?”

Now I know.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Be like Abe

Ever have one of those days when you have to leave the house, but you hope beyond all hope that no one, not anybody, no where, no how, sees you?

Happened to me once – sort of.

I knew when I left home that I’d see a couple people, and I was okay with that. But, running into someone on whom my livelihood depended and on whom I’d like to make a good impression? Not so okay with that.

Just so you understand where I’m coming from here, I’m no prima donna, no prissy pris, no girly girl. I know people who won’t leave the house without lipstick, no less.

I’m not one of them.

In fact, I’ve gone months without a stitch of makeup, years without wearing a skirt or a dress. I’m just a jeans and t-shirt kind of gal. But I take a bath every day, and I wash my hair, brush my teeth and wear clean clothes.

Sometimes, though, even clean clothes don’t look clean, and in the course of a day of hard work, the most well-scrubbed bod can appear otherwise. This was one of those days.

For more years than I care to remember, we owned some apartment houses – not big complexes, not slums, just a handful of nice older two-family homes that we rented out to mostly nice people (though some fooled us a bit).

One summer, we’d decided we’d save money heating the homes come winter if we’d add insulation, so we called the local installation guy and had him do the job. He had some sort of high-powered blower that would fill the attics and side walls with the stuff once he drilled holes in the siding.

A few days after his visit to one home, I got a call from a tenant.

“Hi, it’s me, [name omitted to protect the innocent]. I went down to the basement to do laundry.

“You know that room next to the washer? It’s full of insulation.”

It sure was – pretty nearly, anyway.

When I went over to check it out on my lunch hour, I found that the area, originally the home’s coal room, a long narrow space about four feet wide and ten feet long, was almost half full of gray blown-in cellulose insulation.

Back then, I had Wednesdays off. So, the next Wednesday, I pulled on my work clothes – an old comfy t-shirt and a pair of faded, paint-splattered bib overalls. I took some garbage bags, a snow shovel, a broom and a dust pan with me and set off to un-insulate (Is that a word?) the overstuffed room. If I remember correctly, someone was helping me – another renter or a high school boy who worked with me. Thank goodness.

Within an hour or so, we’d made a lot of progress on the drift of gray snow. It wasn’t heavy, but it was messy, and I was looking the worse for wear. The insulation stuck to my clothes, my shoes, my face, my arms, and burrowed its way into my hair.

I needed a break, and if memory serves me correctly, I also needed more trash bags or boxes or something.

I headed to the grocery store where I worked, just a couple blocks from the house.

An “Oh no!” moment

Did you ever have one of those times when you wished you could just turn invisible, say “Beam me up, Scotty, NOW!” and be outta there? It was one of them.

I wasn’t worried about my coworkers or customers seeing me in my “work clothes.” We’d grown up together and they were used to seeing me all scruffy on my quick trips to the store in the midst of cleaning or painting projects.

What I didn’t count on was walking down the produce aisle toward the double doors to the back room and running right smack dab into one of the store’s owners, an “older” gentleman in neatly pressed suit, starched shirt, shiny shoes and tie. He and his brother had come for a visit.

What I hoped, as I spotted him at the end of the aisle, was that I could just pretend I didn’t see him, and that he wouldn’t see me either. It was too late to take a detour down another aisle.

I’d seen him in the store before, but never met him formally, so I was hoping he’d pay me no mind.

No such chance. In his friendliest voice, the owner, a man named Abe, smiled, and said, “Hello, how are you?” with a warmth not often seen or felt -- as if he really cared.

“Fine, thanks. And you?” was my answer – or something of the sort, smiling back, but thinking “Oh, $@&#!”

Then, I went ahead, pushed through the doors and did what I’d come to do.

To this day, I don’t know if Abe knew I worked for his company, or if he was just being as friendly to me as he was to anyone he met. I like to think it was the latter.

Even before that encounter, I had always tried to be friendly to every customer, no matter how dirty, unfriendly or stand-offish they seemed. I always just felt it was the right thing to do.

But after the morning that Abe treated me as if I were wearing party finery and I was the most important person he’d ever met, I always tried to treat his customers – ours – the same.

I wanted to be like Abe.

I think he would have liked that.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The musings begin

More than a dozen years ago a writer-wannabe moved into a house a couple hundred feet from the train tracks that took Abraham Lincoln to Washington, D.C. a century and a half ago and brought his body back home a few years later.

On the other side of those tracks was Historic Route 66, the Mother Road, often called “the most famous road in the world,” one that stretches from Chicago to California.

She could look out her bedroom window or stand on her deck and see these two roads, which had moved so many people and held many stories.

She could see another road, too.

Just beyond Route 66 was Interstate 55, a hustling, bustling road, stretching from Chicago to St. Louis, a thoroughfare where people drive too fast, get too impatient and seldom treat their fellow sojourners with caring and respect.

The writer-wannabe had loved playing with words for as long as she could remember -- watching them bound off of a page to tell her a story, putting them together to share her own stories or to spread her love. But instead of using her words to make a living, she’d spent more than four decades going down a different trail.

When her path led her to Lincoln’s rails, Route 66 and I-55, she was working in a box (a cubicle) within a much bigger box (a corporate office building) in one of a pair of twin cities through which these three roads passed.

If she’d been adventuresome, this writer-wannabe may have been able to hitch a ride on a rail car to get to her job in the box, or like many others from her community, she could have endured a stressful commute a la interstate.

The road less traveled

But this commuter chose the third, the less-traveled path each day. She took Route 66. Instead of jockeying for position, she could take her time, have her space, reflect on whatever thoughts crawled into the passenger seat of her minivan.

About this time, the writer-wannabe, who had attended a writer’s workshop the year before, began listening to books on tape – essays by authors such as Robert Fulghum, Maya Angelou and Erma Bombeck. She found the more she listened to their essays, the more she found herself writing her own -- in her head, if not on paper.

As Memorial Day approached, she submitted a piece about her reflections on the holiday to the area-wide paper. The op-ed editor liked it. Her words were in print.

Then she started writing freelance book reviews about Illinois-related books for a major downstate newspaper. The reviews gave her the writing samples she needed to apply for a job writing for the corporation where she worked. She moved to a different small box in a different big box, and she wrote for a living.

Yet, she still didn’t feel like a writer. The words she wrote were those the organization needed her to write. Even though the letters were dropping from her fingers onto the keyboard, they weren’t her words. They were what the corporation paid her to share.

She longed to write her own words, and took a stab at it from time to time, writing late into the night on a yellow or white legal pad, sitting at her desktop computer until she nodded off at the keyboard or preparing speeches to share with her fellow Toastmasters.

Directions, please

In the fall of 2008, driving through life seeking direction, the scribe ran smack dab into something that was to change her life forever. As she got her morning word fix, reading the daily paper, a front-page article told of a course to be offered at the community college about “The Life and Times of Abraham Lincoln.” It was the college’s way of commemorating the upcoming bicentennial of the 16th president’s birth.

The writer-wannabe, a lifelong Lincoln enthusiast, took the course, started a blog, began using social media to promote it, and used vacation days to attend Lincoln events nearby and far away, chronicling her journey on her Lincoln Buff 2 blog.

As the bicentennial wound down and she took a much-needed rest from blogging (she’d done 200 in a year, after all), the blogger realized she’d found something else she loved almost as much as Abraham Lincoln – connecting with people, learning from others and sharing what she’d learned, using social media.

In early 2011, as she looked forward to a physical and a career move, she knew that what would bring her the most happiness in the next phase of her career was a marriage of those two things she loved – writing about things that moved her and sharing them using social media.

A writer I-yam

I was that writer-wannabe. I am no more. In April 2011, I became a full-time writer and editor. I work from home and I love what I do.

Now, having rested from blogging for a while, in addition to my professional writing, I’ve poured tens of thousands of words into four manuscripts, one finished and awaiting its next revision, another barely begun, a third off to a healthy start, and a fourth pouring itself onto the page so furiously that I can barely keep up with it.

Along for the ride

I’m ready to blog again, but the musings I want to share this time don’t belong in a blog dedicated to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Though it’s been more than a decade since I lived in the house near Route 66, these words are the legitimate offspring of those “passengers” on my contemplative commutes. The words, the musings - they still occupying the passenger seat of my minivan, but we’ve got room for more riders.

Please, join us on this journey. It’s bound to be an adventure.

Welcome to “Musings on Route 66.”

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Musings? What musings?

The concept for this blog truly was born one morning as I drove to work on Route 66. It was one of those periods in a writer’s life when the words were coming so fast and furious that I couldn’t begin to get them all down on paper. (If you’re a writer, an artist, a musician, you know what I mean.)

The little town where we lived had a small newspaper, one of those publications where just about anyone can submit just about anything, from a report on the bonnets at a ladies’ club tea to the latest pee-wee league baseball scores. (Believe me, it had both.)

I was musing and I was on Route 66. What better to call this venture than “Musings on Route 66”?

I was thinking of approaching the local editor with my column concept, when we learned we’d be moving to another Illinois community. It didn’t seem right to abandon a town, yet expect to have my words included in its local paper, so I abandoned the idea as well.

But, still, it kept nagging at me – or was it “calling out" for me?

Here, there and everywhere

Today, my musings take place almost anywhere – yes, even in the shower – but I still like that early name and what it represents – a slower pace, a time to look back, look forward, to travel in time and in thoughts.

As I realized that this blog was determined to write itself, I decided maybe I should think about the sorts of things I’d share here.

Stories begging to be shared

Here’s what I know now that I will share.

But don’t forget. I’m a writer.

Writers often have stories that just tap us on the shoulder, haunt us in our sleep, jump up and down on the passenger seats of our minivans, saying “Write me, write me, write me.” So, we must. Those stories may not always fit into one of the categories I’ve chosen, but one thing is for sure. They’re destined to be shared.

As this blog begins, I have plans to share musings that I can neatly plug under these headings. Click on the tabs at the top of the pages to learn what types of things I’ll be sharing in each of these categories:

  • Been thinkin’
  • A book is perking
  • Books worth reading
  • Boomer banter
  • Found a quote
  • Inspired in Illinois
  • Missouri minutes
  • The Mother Road
  • Sensational beings
  • Simple things
  • Wanna be a writer?

I’m hoping, dear reader, that if you found your way to this blog, there’s something in one of these categories that may interest you. Click on the links, check out the introductory posts and watch for links to future posts.

Just like the people who journey down Route 66, we’re heading out on a great adventure. Can’t wait to see where it takes us.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Monday, January 2, 2012

So ya wanna be a writer?

You think you want to be a writer?

Join the crowd.

You’ve got stories in your head.

How are others going to hear them if you leave them there?

You’re so busy.

Yep. We all are.

You don’t know where to start.

Start here. Start now

Start with a pen and paper or a computer keyboard. Then get those stories out of your head and onto the page.

Don’t think you have time?

Make time. Get up early or stay up late. Turn off the darned television. Keep a pen and paper with you so you can write when you’re waiting for a train or for a kid to get done with soccer practice or on your lunch hour.

Make writing a priority.

There’s only one way to become a writer – and that’s to write.

Watch for wisdom

In future blog posts, I’ll share words of wisdom from other writers, links to videos that have inspired me or given me direction, tell you about books for, by and about writers. Each and every book or magazine that I have read on writing has given me some morsel that has helped me on my journey.

But above all other things, the one thing that helped me the most was reading. I started early and never quit. As I read, I absorbed sentence structure, grammar and punctuation, phrasing and rhythm.

Read, read, read, read, read

So, if you’re not reading now, or you don’t read often, start. Start today.

  • Read newspapers – in print or online.
  • Spend the time in a waiting room reading magazines you normally don’t read, not playing Angry Birds on your smartphone.
  • Visit your library. You know, that place with all the rows and rows of books.
  • Get an ebook reader. You’d be surprised the number of volumes that are available free of charge, and you can download new releases for a fee on the day they hit the market.
  • If you’ve got kids or elderly family members in your home or nearby, read to them. It will expose you to things you wouldn’t read otherwise. Sharing their interests will not only broaden your horizon and theirs. It will also expose you to new material, new ideas, new writing styles.
Write often, write lots

But most of all, more than anything, to be a writer, you must write. You must write often. You must write lots.

Ray Bradbury says to write a thousand words a day -- and he practiced what he preached.

Do the same and you’re on the right path.

Don’t put a pen to paper and you’ve got only yourself to blame when ten years from now or twenty or thirty, you’re still saying to yourself, “I wanna be a writer.”

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Work clothes

Work clothes -- what does that word mean to you?

When I was a little girl, my first “job” was a volunteer opportunity at my grandmother’s church, preparing catechism materials for the diocese. We’d walk down up and down rows of tables assembling loose-leaf booklets, picking up a page at a time and setting it on top of the others. My work clothes for that first job were whatever I’d brought with me for my stay at Grandma’s – perhaps shorts and a top, maybe a dress.

Later, as a young teen, I babysat. Those work clothes were my jeans and a sweater in the winter, shorts and a t-shirt in the summer.

'Real' jobs, 'real' work clothes

At sixteen, I started my first paying job, and I had to wear a uniform – a nearly see-through light green nylon dress with big white buttons in the front from top to bottom. It was the sixties, so it was short. The stockers in those grocery stores never seemed to complain about their female coworkers’ garb.

That uniform later gave way to a series of smocks, none as flattering to a youthful figure as the green dresses, but able to hide a multitude of unwanted curves and bulges on an aging, out-of-shape bod.

During those years, I wore a number of other work clothes, too, as the store where I worked had themed promotions a couple times a year or so. I was a movie usher, a clown, a bearded prospector and more. It was fun hitting the thrift stores looking for things like bold plaid slacks and Mork-style suspenders for my costumes.

When I began working in corporate America, my work clothes changed. I wore business attire or corporate casual, often tending to go on the dressier side, wearing a blazer or jacket over slacks, in leaner years wearing dresses and in frumpier days, a sweater and slacks.

Today, I work from home, so my work clothes are whatever I feel like wearing. Believe it or not, even though I could spend the whole day in my smiley-face flannel pjs, I do get dressed – usually in jeans, yoga pants or sweats and a comfy long- or short-sleeved t-shirt.

'But, I want them -- really, I do!'

There were a couple of items of work attire, I’d never owned, though, and long desired. I wanted a sturdy brown-twill lined jacket and bib overalls. You know, the kind the linemen for the power company or farmers or tradesmen wear.

Sounds silly for a woman, you think?

Not when there’s six inches of snow on the ground and you want to use the snow blower, but don’t want to have wet jeans in 15 minutes as 30-mile-an-hour winds blow the white stuff back at you. Not when you want to go out for firewood when it’s 10 degrees outside. Not when you’re heading to town on ice-packed roads in the middle of the winter.

Not when you want to lay down to work at making snow angels with your grandkids in the middle of the winter.

“Happiness is found in simple things,” says E.B. Michaels.

My new “work clothes” make me happy.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Lose a friend, find a coffee house

“Let no man grumble when his friends fall off; instead let him go to the coffee house and take another.”

Gee, sounds like something someone might say today, right? It must have to do with Facebook and Starbucks or Panera, right?

Think again.

This little morsel, which I had in my little green binder, is attributed to Lord Byron, who lived from 1788 to 1824.

The actual quote, found in Don Juan, Canto XIV, is:

“Let no man grumble when his friends fall off,
As they will do at the first breeze:
When your affairs come round, one way or t’ other,
Go to the coffee-house and take another.”

So, next time you notice someone has “unfriended” you on Facebook, don’t “get bent out of shape.”

Get coffee.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

True Grit: Still magic after all these years

Do you have an all-time favorite movie?

Or do you have a favorite for a year or two or ten, then one day along comes something you like better and your all-time favorite moves into the number two spot, eventually lower or perhaps someday even drops off your list?

For me, there’s just one – always and forever. It’s the original “True Grit.” I have to admit -- the remake is good, really good. The actors are incredible. If anyone could give John Wayne, the Duke, a run for his money in this film, it’s Jeff Bridges. He’s not John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, but his Rooster is one hell of a character.

Hailee Steinfeld is this side of amazing as Mattie Ross. Honestly, how is this kid ever going to top her performance here?

But she’s not Kim Darby.

Matt Damon makes LaBoeuf a little more believable that Glen Campbell did and he’s not too hard to look at, either. Yet, who couldn’t love and laugh at the bumbling LaBoeuf characterized by the singing cowboy.

And, my bet is we’re a lot more likely to remember Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney than Jeff Corey’s.

Jeff who? Josh, ooo…

But what made True Grit, the 1969 version, my favorite film ever, the one I saw five times back in the days when people just didn’t spend money that frivolously, was the cast, the story, the way they interacted, and the soundtrack.

I was sad when I left the theatre after watching the new version of the film. It just wasn’t the same without hearing Campbell singing, “… some days, little girl, you’ll wonder what life’s about … you’ll look around to find someone who’s kind, someone who is fearless like you. The pain of it will ease a bit when you find a man with True Grit.”

The magic of it all

For me, back then, part of the magic, the appeal of the movie was the soundtrack, the way Campbell’s music helped to tell the story. For novice True Gritters, the lack of music in the remake was surely a non-event, but for me, it was a big disappointment.

There aren’t many movies for which I can remember where I sat (the left side of the mezzanine of Galesburg’s Orpheum Theater), who I was with (name shall remain undisclosed) and when I saw it (the summer before my senior year in high school).

But what really captured my heart and holds it still today was that spunky little tomboy and the relationship she built with the big, bad Rooster Cogburn, the love the tough guy showed for the “little lady,” even when he tried not to, and the best movie quote of all time.

Who can’t love “Fill your hands, you [expletive deleted]?”

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

(Image via)

Meet Robert Waldmire

When I think of Route 66, I think of one man, Robert (Bob) Waldmire, and his VW bus. Waldmire was an artist. His subject was the Mother Road.

Waldmire spent much of his life traveling the highway, capturing its heart and soul in his work, living in his vehicle.

As he was nearing the end of his life, the Chicago Tribune interviewed Waldmire in the converted school bus he called home.

I never met Bob Waldmire, but I have always been convinced that if I had, I would have liked him. We’ve got a common bond. I don’t know about “kicks”, but I think we both agree we got our ideas on Route 66.

(Video via)

Text © Ann Tracy Mueller 2012