Writing

This collection is a mix of published articles and personal projects. To see more of my writing (creative nonfiction & personal essays), visit my blog No Need for Mirrors.nnfm logo


Feature Articles

A Flock of Her Own: Bloomfield fleece farmer shares love of fiber arts

Published in Homes & Lifestyles of South-Central Indiana, February 2012

Operating her wooden spinning wheel, Pam Kinnaman gently pulls a clump of white fleece with an effortless technique as she watches it transform into yarn. Just outside, a pasture and barn are home to her very own flock of sheep and camelids — llamas and alpacas — whose names and personalities she knows like those of her own children. On her Bloomfield, Ind. farm, with her husband Tim and host of fiber-bearing animals, Pam is living out her dream.

Fiber farm

Eleven years ago, the Kinnamans purchased the farm that they found online. Midwest transplants from Florida, Pam began populating the farm with sheep just a couple years later. She started to accumulate Camelids more recently and says she’d like to have more. “I’m going crazy,” she says, about her acquisition of llamas and alpacas. “I just can’t stop. It’s an addiction.”

Her so-called addiction to adopting and fostering camelids has created a necessity for a larger pasture. Tim and the Kinnamans’ high school-aged farmhand, Brian, dig holes for new posts that will allow the remaining expanse of land to be fenced in and stop every so often to ask Pam for help. She willingly obliges, temporarily putting her spinning on hold.

All of the llamas and alpacas on the farm are males because Pam doesn’t keep them for breeding purposes, but solely for their fleece. “I keep them for their fiber and for them to have a home,” she says. In the barn, she points out Chico, Ishy, Orion, and Hombre, among others, and explains where all of them came from and the qualities of their fiber. Pam fosters llamas on behalf of the Southeast Llama Rescue, an organization that exists to protect abused and neglected llamas, in addition to the camelids she personally owns. “I’d love to adopt them all,” she says. “But I have to control myself.”

Looking to the other side of the barn, Pam tells stories about Princess Diana, Larry Bird, Prince Charming, and Angel, just a few of her sheep. “I want to downsize to a spinner’s flock,” she says. She hopes to sell some of her Shetland sheep and acquire different types of animals, particularly Wensleydale sheep, to have more of a variety in the fleece she procures.

The little guy

Two years ago, Pam started the Indiana Fiber Producers Association (IFPA) in the hopes that she would be able to provide a venue for “the little guy” — local fiber artists who sell their materials and finished products. Members’ products are sold at various events as well as in Pam’s shop It’s About Fiber, a small white building at the back of her property.

In the back room of It’s About Fiber, Pam pulls products from the shelves and explains the materials used to make each one. There is a selection of roving, raw fiber that will be used by spinners to make yarn, or by felters. Multi-colored skeins of yarn fill the cubby hole shelves, all of which are hand-dyed by IFPA members. Some are left in their natural state, like a skein of pure black yarn that Pam adores. “I get excited about black fiber because my sheep don’t give me all-black fiber,” she explains.

Some knitted and crocheted garments are displayed around the room including a shawl and small selection of scarves and gloves. “I don’t have a lot of finished product here because I’ve sold so much,” she says.

Prices vary, depending on how the fiber was spun, the weight of the skein, and the type of fiber. A 16 ounce mill-spun skein of alpaca wool costs $9.60, while a larger skein of handspun Wensleydale yarn, the “high end stuff,” according to Pam, costs $38.

The side room bursts with bags full of fleeces from both sheep and camelids. Members with their own flocks sell raw materials at It’s About Fiber, too. Every bag displays a picture of the animal from which the fleece came, its date of birth, and the farm’s name. Pam peaks into a bag with a picture of an alpaca named Buster on the front. “I’m buying Buster,” she says. Members also sell fleeces at the IFPA booths during fiber events throughout the year.

“That’s Moe, Abel, Val,” Pam says, pointing out the bags of fleece taken from her own flock. She pulls apart a small clump of fiber from one of the bags and runs her fingers over the impurities that will remain until the fleece is cleaned properly. The cleaning process is lengthy and is typically done in a bathtub, using nylon netting as a filter after most of the vegetation is picked out by hand.

Fiber events

Pam and the IFPA participate in festivals and fairs, typically in the spring and fall, with booths paid for by members. Some events, like the Hoosier Hills Fiber Arts Festival and the Bloomington Spinners and Weavers Guild Fiber Arts Show and Sale target a specific audience. Others, like the Linton Freedom Festival, allow Pam an opportunity to operate her spinning wheel at the booth, displaying her craft for curious patrons who may be less familiar with the fiber arts. “It’s an education,” she says. “People don’t really know there are so many of us out there.”

Last fall, Pam and members of the IFPA participated in Worldwide Spin in Public Day, an international event that centers on such an education. They gathered on the sidewalk outside the Monroe County History Center in Bloomington, operating their spinning wheels and drawing a crowd of inquisitive passersby. “I hope to have a lot more people this year,” Pam says. “I want to have food and beverages and make it more of an event.”

Occasionally, Pam invites the public to her farm for Rooing and Shearing Days. Rooing is the process of removing an animal’s fleece by hand using a plucking technique. “It draws people out,” she says. “We do it to get people out here.” Pam’s enjoyment of educating the public about fiber arts is also evident in the schedule of classes provided at It’s About Fiber. Classes range from spinning and felting to weaving for children, beginning knitting, and dying.

The newest event that Pam plans to organize will take place on her farm, as well. This fall, she hopes to begin hosing Fiber Retreats, a bed and breakfast-style weekend for fiber artists that offers classes and workshops from Friday to Sunday. “We’d feed them, sit on the front porch and spin,” she says. “A group of friends could plan to come down and do it. We could sleep six.” Pam’s eyes light up as she talks about the possibility of hosting fiber artists in her home. “My husband has not been as enthusiastic about this, but I’m going to do it,” she says.

Though she has lived most of her life in an urban environment, she now embraces her rural lifestyle, her dream. “It’s cool because I have animals and I can be creative using their fiber,” she says. “I always wanted a farm and critters. I wish I had gotten into it ages ago.”

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Where the Wood Wills: Rustic furniture maker enhances nature’s perfect imperfections

Published in Homes & Lifestyles of South-Central Indiana, February 2012

Holding a digital camera, he scrolls through photos of his creations that have already found homes. He flips to a photograph of a table with walnuts embedded in the surface, a pleasant surprise discovered upon sawing the wood. “Squirrels put them there!” he says with a laugh. For this primitive furniture maker, what others may consider to be nature’s flaws are simply perfection when it comes to his craft.

Robert Hamm, 77, has worked with wood for most of his life but began selling what he calls primitive or rustic furniture just 13 years ago. “I like to take wood that nobody else would use,” he says of his building materials. His Bloomington home is a showcase of his work, from the coffee table in the living room to the hutch and dining table in the rear of the house.

Unique techniques

He traces his fingers over a deep groove that runs through the middle of his dining table. “If a piece of wood has a hairline crack, I’ll make it bigger because it sells better. I’ll make it bigger than what it was,” he says. Using a Dremel rotary tool, Robert often accentuates grooves and cracks in wood for his customers because he knows they are in the market for pieces that showcase such imperfections.

Robert seeks out materials with knots and unique grain lines and doesn’t discriminate based on the type of wood. His collection spans from cedar to maple, and every piece has a signature all its own. “No two pieces are alike,” he says. He points out some dark spots on the hutch where he used a knife and saw to remove the bark but preserved the effect the bark had given.

He recalls a time when a customer wanted to purchase one of his large tables but preferred a lighter stain. Because Robert’s pieces feature so much design at the surface, he had to be careful when removing and replacing the finish. “If you take it all the way down, you ruin the character,” he explains. He sands each surface so that it is smooth but with a technique that leaves a bit of texture and marks for visual appeal.

Where the work happens

Robert’s wife of six years, Wilma, rests her feet on the living room coffee table he made and kindly declines an invitation to join him for a trip to his wood workshop. He removes a khaki-colored fedora hat from the closet and places it on his head before he exits the house. “He’s got to have his hat,” Wilma says with a smile.

He makes the drive to Whitehall every day to work in his barbershop and wood workshop in the connecting garage. A barber for over 50 years, he tells stories of how he hitchhiked to barber school in Indianapolis. “I was barbering uptown when they put in 37,” he recalls. Though he comments on how much the surrounding area has built up in his lifetime, his property in Whitehall, marked with a “Hamm’s Barber Shop” sign, appears almost preserved in time.

Inside the adjacent workshop, pieces of lumber and raw wood lean against every wall. Saws, sanders, a planer, dust catcher, and drills are spread around the workspace, sprinkled with sawdust. Robert holds up a piece of wood that had rested near the door. “Here’s a huge piece. One piece for sale at Big River is like this. That’s junk wood,” he says, jokingly referring to how others have categorized the piece.

“A church member gave me that,” he says, pointing to an oversized cross-section of a tree stump, bark and all. “I won’t do much more to it. That’s what sells.” Using his handheld sander, he takes a moment to work on a smaller piece of wood. After the hum of the sander dies down, he holds it at an angle to see the texture he has created. “See how much differently it smoothes out?” he asks, comparing his technique to the way a traditional tabletop would be sanded.

A family legacy

In a one-room house on the same property, referred to as Hamm’s Family Cabin, Robert keeps some finished pieces. End tables, a foot stool, candleholders, wall shelves, and even a small table and chairs for children are spread around the cabin’s tables. One wall shelf is adorned with antlers, a technique Robert says he has used only sparingly. Buckets of varnish on the tabletops are evidence of his works in progress.

Outside on the porch, he keeps a rustic wall shelf that features a tree branch as a decorative accessory.  This piece, like all the others, is slightly asymmetrical and even has a hollow spot created naturally by an original hole in the wood.  The porch is littered with antique tools that surround the doorway. “These all came from the shop where my great granddad worked,” Robert says. His great grandfather made wagons, buggies, and wagon wheels — a woodworking legacy that has been passed down through generations.

“Woodworking is in my blood from way back,” he says. Robert’s father built houses, and his uncle was a finish carpenter. Growing up on a farm, he says he helped with building projects as a kid, which progressed into more and more time spent in the shop as a high school student.

Every piece tells a story

Walking over a gravel path, Robert stops at the front of a large metal storage barn behind the barbershop and wood workshop. After he slides open the oversized door, he makes his way past the old farm equipment to one of the largest dining tables he has ever made. Peeling back a tarp, he reveals more chairs, including a tiny children’s rocking chair, all constructed in his signature style. Though he still sells 45 to 50 pieces of furniture a year, most at Big River Tackle & Timber in Nashville, Ind., the pieces in this storage barn have yet to sell, so he keeps them tucked away safely.

Every one of Robert’s pieces tells a story, he says. He tells stories through pieces of wood that would typically be discarded, showcasing their blemishes by making them beautiful. “I keep busy,” he says. “God grew the tree and gave me the ability to make rustic furniture.”

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Going Off Book: ‘Book Artist’ uses old texts to create new art’

Published in Homes & Lifestyles of South-Central Indiana, October 2011

Talia Halliday’s table rests under stacks of books instead of place settings. The hutch in the corner is a home for art supplies – not fine china. Shelves burst with vintage books, photo albums, and small plastic shelves full of art supplies. Two sewing machines rest on a desk among a clutter of boxes on the floor and paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. Her dining room as become her studio.

Two years ago Talia turned her bookmaking hobby into a career. In the fall of 2009 she opened Conduit Press on Etsy.com and has been operating her business out of her home ever since. A self-proclaimed “book artist,” her signature pieces are hand bound leather journals, vintage book safes and clutch purses, all made from recycled and repurposed materials.

Artistic beginnings

She never set out to own and operate her own business. It just happened. “I would always make books as gifts for friends and things like that. It was always just something to do on the side,” she said. After graduating from Indiana University in 2004 with a master’s degree in education, she decided not to go the teaching route.

As an employee at both Kinko’s and Author House in Bloomington, she tapped into her creative interests that bloomed in high school when she was a part of a literary magazine staff. Sitting at the table, she thumbs through the original “zine” that she and her friends created as an unsanctioned supplement to the official publication. “We wanted to publish things that (our adviser) didn’t want to publish, so we made our own,” she said. “It’s funny when you go back and look at it now, it’s just bad high school poetry.”

At IU she enrolled in a course through the Collins Living and Learning Center called “Creating the Artist Book” where she learned the binding techniques that she uses today (though now she says she uses “her own rules” when it comes to book binding.) In the class, she created what she calls “artist books” – collage-style photo album-inspired books with a painted cover and pages. She decided to pursue her interest in photography at the same time and filled the pages of her books with her own photos.

Starting her business

Talia knew that with the birth of her son, Griffin, in 2009 that she wanted to work from home. When organizers of the Bloomington Handmade Market discovered Conduit Press on Etsy.com, she was recruited as a vendor for its first indie craft fair – an event featuring work from local alternative artists and crafters. This would be the event that would give Talia the momentum she needed to operate Conduit Press as a business instead of a hobby.

“I had just had Griffin, and I was going through a little bit of post partum and a little bit of cabin fever and a little bit of what am I going to do? The (Bloomington Handmade Market) is what got me out of it because I was like now I have to make stuff to be in this fair.”

Now she keeps a wheeled crate packed in her garage – an extension of her dining room studio – for weekend craft fairs. She participates in other regional indie craft events like the Handmade Promenade and the Indieana Handicraft Exchange in Indianapolis and Déjà vu All Over Again in Columbus.

The Conduit Press craft fair display is a physical manifestation of Talia’s Etsy shop. Her signature book safes and clutch purses appear, at first glance, to be unaltered vintage books littering the shelves. But opening the front cover of a book safe reveals a hollowed shape cut through every page, which Talia fills with an item to fit the shape. Some of her most popular book safes come with a flask or a toy gun hidden inside.

Locally, Conduit Press books are available at Farm, Barefoot Kids, Paper Crane Gallery, and Book Corner in Bloomington. Over the last two years, she has expanded her scope of brick-and-mortar stores to include Wholly Craft in Columbus, Ohio and Magpie in Summerville, Mass. among others. “It’s nice to get out of the Midwest,” she said.

Details of her work

Her vintage book clutch purses are lined with fabric and made so they don’t open wider than 90 degrees. They fasten with a magnetic closure. Talia acquires most of her vintage books from Public Library sales and giveaways, discards from auctions, and thrift stores. “When I get rich and famous I’ll have to become a giant donor to the library because they’ve definitely helped me,” she said with a laugh.

The unfinished mini journals stacked on her table are intended for an upcoming children’s craft fair. Pieces of yellow, maroon, and purple leather are wrapped around three-inch by five-inch notebooks, waiting to be stitched. These journals will be refillable, unlike the traditional journals she makes with the pages sewn in.

Talia uses repurposed leather acquired from an upholsterer in Tennessee. She requests colors, but sometimes receives a box of surprises. “In this shipment, he sent me some gold, which I’m not a fan of, so I turned it inside out. It’s the first time I asked for pastel colors,” she said.

For her larger hand bound journals, she prefers a more rustic look with long, exposed stitches on the binding. She creates patterns on some covers with an embroidery sewing machine. Some are adorned with leather cut-outs of a tree, a whale, and even a mustache. Others are topped with a skeleton key or other vintage trinket.

An even smaller version of her hand-stitched journals also serves as a necklace “pendant.” Just one-inch by two-inches in size, the tiny book necklaces are exact replicas of her larger hand bound books.  “I had these small pieces of leather and knew I couldn’t make a book out of a piece that small,” she said. “I just try to find ways that I can use everything.”

Talia said her work is always evolving. She is planning to unveil a vintage book jewelry box in the near future to add to her existing repertoire of recycled book art. Her combination of aesthetic preferences leads her to create beautiful utilitarian pieces for her customers. “My customers inspire me to make things for them – pretty things for them,” she said.

“Everything inspires me, so sometimes I feel like there’s a lack of cohesion in my work because I’m inspired by so many things. I really like old, vintage books. But I also like awesome, long contemporary lines, and sometimes I find it hard to merge those two things, but I’m learning,” she said.

The Conduit Press logo is a tree. A similar figure is stitched into a burlap tapestry hung on Talia’s dining room studio wall. Among her inspirations, this image is a reminder of what sets her work apart and keeps her interested in it. “I’m inspired a lot by nature in general,” she said. “That’s why the tree is kind of my thing, and I try to recycle as much as I can.”

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Bloomington by Hand: Local artists create a market for the unconventional

Published in Homes & Lifestyles of South-Central Indiana, October 2011

A basket of plush walruses and whales rests in the corner of Paper Crane Gallery & Boutique in Bloomington. Linocut and watercolor prints are displayed neatly, and the far wall is home to a host of handmade patterned baby bonnets and bloomers.

“I would definitely wear those,” Mia Beach says, admiring the tiny garments.

Today, though, she, Sally Harless, and Nicole Wolfersberger are all wearing black adult-sized clothing. They laugh, but hardly seem surprised at their coincidental wardrobe coordination. Perhaps, they say, it is their similar tastes that brought them together to plan Bloomington’s premiere independent craft fair.

Welcome to the Market

The Bloomington Handmade Market was born in 2009, the brainchild of these three women who share an interest in alternative crafts and Handmade Culture.

“We are an indie craft fair,” Sally says. “I don’t think we really call ourselves that, but we cater ourselves more toward artists and crafters who are putting a different spin on traditional techniques or traditional mediums.”

Unlike traditional fine arts fairs, the Bloomington Handmade Market is an event that showcases accessible, affordable handmade items such as house wares, greeting cards, knitted garments, books, apparel, and a slew of other oddities and trinkets. Twice a year, new and faithful patrons alike make their way to the Bloomington Convention Center to purchase treasures from the creators themselves.

Saturday, Nov. 12 will mark the Market’s fifth event — no small feat, according to the women. “It’s time consuming,” Mia says. “And because we’ve done several of them now, we’re doing the same things over and over, and it feels like we’ve done more than we actually have.”

Though they admit that the planning and execution of the Market can be stressful, the women are in agreement that the end result has been worth it every time. “It looks more now like I wanted it to look initially. The word has gotten out, and we’ve been getting a better quality of artists,” Nicole says.

The winter Market will feature around 45 vendors, the same number juried into the first event. The BHM has changed little in size and scope over the past two years, but word of mouth among the artists has brought an influx of regional applicants, giving the women more vendors to choose from each time around. They’re not planning to expand just yet, but as the event’s popularity grows, the women know they may have to reconsider.

“Last time we go over 100 applicants, and we only had space for 46 people,” Mia says. “If that number increases, and it gets to the point that we’re turning too many people away, I’d be happy to make it bigger. We’re taking it in baby steps.”

“That’s the way to go,” Sally agrees.

Making it happen

Mia, Sally, and Nicole laugh when asked about making money from the Market. Financial success has never been their goal.

“We pretty much break even,” Nicole says.

“It’s one giant volunteer effort,” Mia chimes in.

Local businesses have had a hand in the Market from the very beginning. Atlas Bar, Bloomington Bagel Company, and Yarns Unlimited, among others, purchase ads in the BHM program, and businesses such as Bloomingfoods provide snacks to sell at each event.

“That money will go toward securing the space at the Convention Center, which is our single biggest expense,” Nicole says. “We don’t want to ask people for money all the time, but we also want to keep our booth spaces low for the artists.” By placing the focus on the artists and their products, their hope is that the community will do the same.

“We get a lot of people who wander over from the Farmers Market,” Nicole says. “Overwhelmingly, it’s been really positive. They say they’ve never seen anything like it.”

Sally names Purple Hippo Stitches, a repeat BHM vendor, as a prime example of what new patrons may find so fascinating and refreshing about the event. “Purple Hippo Stitches is cross-stitch, a really traditional thing that your grandmother probably did,” she explains. “But she uses it in a different way. She uses a lot of snarky phrases and pop culture references.” The booth’s display showcases traditional-style cross-stitch patterns that read I Hate People and Negative Nancy among other humorous phrases.

Mia, Sally, and Nicole seek out vendors who have something new and interesting to offer in their high-quality handmade products. As word of the BHM has spread, the applicant pool has grown to include more and more out-of-state and regional artists, some applying from as far away as Minnesota, and many more from Chicago, Louisville, and Columbus (Ohio).

“There’s this girl Abbey Christine who makes pop culture finger puppets who applied last time, and I was really excited about it,” Sally says.

“I was really excited when she applied,” Mia chimes in. “I really wanted my John and Yoko finger puppets.”

Crafting Community

In 2010, Sally and Nicole opened Paper Crane Gallery & Boutique. The space serves as a virtual Market, contained in one room, giving BHM vendors a chance to sell their handmade goods outside of the biannual event.

“A lot of the people who sell stuff for Paper Crane are also vendors we have for the Handmade Market,” Sally says. Artists sell their items on consignment at the shop.

According to Nicole, Paper Crane has a community focus similar to that of the BHM. “We wanted to offer a place for local artists that were kind of in transition —who weren’t super established in the art scene but who are maybe out of school and want a place to showcase and sell artwork,” she says.

Artists themselves, the local community of artists and crafters is near and dear to these women’s hearts. One benefit of the BHM, Sally says, is how it has unified Bloomington’s alternative artists. “It’s bringing the crafter community here closer together,” she says.

“It’s cool,” Mia adds. “It’s also brining in bigger people from out of town, which is making Bloomington more prominent in the craft world.”

As Mia, Sally, and Nicole prepare for the winter Market, they hope that even more locals will come to see what it’s like to be a part of the community they have invested so much in.

Shoppers can expect to find plenty of knitted winter wear, ornaments, holiday-themed cards and unique stocking stuffers. “We do have something for everyone,” Mia says. “And you’ll get a chance to connect directly to the artists. You can meet the person who made the scarf you’re buying.”

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Taking the ‘LEED’: Couple puts environmental concerns where their home is

Published in Homes & Lifestyles of South-Central Indiana, August 2011

Their home on West 8th Street doesn’t immediately stand out among neighboring houses. Except for a sign in the yard declaring its Platinum Leadership in Environmental Energy and Design (LEED) certification, it fits in as a complementary structure in its near west side neighborhood, quietly nestled between homes of similar size and stature.

What sets David and Carol Gulyas’ home apart is the way it was built. With environmentally conscious building practices and materials as the top priorities in the construction process, the Gulyas home is different from any other in Bloomington, and David and Carol themselves were a part of the design and construction from inception to near completion.

The benefits of a LEED home

“The benefits of being much more comfortable and healthier in a house like this far outweigh the difficulties to making it happen,” Gulyas says. These difficulties include an exhausted budget, which has put a hold on finishing touches to a master bathroom and a detached garage. As he gives a tour of his home wearing a hat supporting “Friends of the Forest,” it is clear that his focus is on what has been completed since construction began in late 2008, as well as the energy savings and environmental integrity that his house will sustain for hundreds of years to come.

Upon entering the house, visitors first pass through an airlock sealed vestibule, which is replicated at the rear entrance. The Gulyas home, modeled after the German Passive House, emphasizes insulation and natural air circulation. “Germans are crazy!” David says, laughing. “They try and achieve as close to zero net energy without any pumps or furnaces.” Though he describes German designers as “crazy,” David himself says he hopes for a day when homes don’t just achieve zero net energy, but produce more energy than they use.

In the guest room, David peels back a towel from what appears to be a crate on the floor, revealing, instead, a piece of the insulation used to frame the entire house. He refers to the insulation as SIPS or structural insulated panels. These panels are 12 inches of thick polystyrene, surrounded by wood on both sides. “Heat comes from us,” David explains. “It’s trapped with nowhere to go, and it becomes embedded in the (floor) slab and drywall.” Because the walls of the house stay warmer, they don’t pull out a person’s body heat, which typically can typically cause someone to feel cold.
The floor of the Gulyas home has the same effect and is also modeled closely after the German Passive House. David points out that the concrete floor slab directly under a visitor’s feet is “thermally decoupled” from the SIPS and sub-slab, in other words, “floating in insulation,” he says.  The slab functions as a way to absorb moisture and humidity that may enter from the outside. “The house dries out pretty quickly,” David adds.

Implementing new technologies

The Gulyas home is visibly absent of any carpeting, tile, or wood flooring, which was done to achieve David’s desired aesthetic in addition to the intended insulation benefits. “From the design standpoint, it makes sense to have continuity, a narrative of the materials touching everything,” he says. The deep red-brown stained concrete flows effortlessly from the open dining room, kitchen, and living area into each of the home’s three bedrooms.

Despite the expansive concrete slab and open floor plan, the house is void of expected echoes. The Gulyas home’s acoustics even breathed new life into David’s lifelong passion for music. “I never realized when I moved here that I’d be drawn back into music this way,” he explains.  His living room has served as a recording space for local jazz musician and IU alum Jeremy Allen among others. Strumming “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael, David shows his appreciation for homegrown musicians, not just homegrown food and building materials.

An office at the front of the home is painted yellow and flooded with light through two windows, one on the south wall and one on the west. The windows are designed to maximize the amount of light in the house as well as insulate according to season. This “daylighting” technique, achieved through windows in the walls as well as solar windows in the ceiling, keep the house naturally lit, eliminating much of the need for artificial lighting inside the house during daytime hours.

In the early evening, shelves of photographs and books are still illuminated, as are David’s guitar and stand-up bass. It’s not until the sun has almost completely set that David needs to flip the light switch.

David’s next big project is to install a system of LED lights that will be suspended high above the doorframes throughout the house. David, a trained designer, looks forward to the aesthetic qualities of the lighting system he has in mind. “You want lighting to have flexibility in design,” he said. “You want it to illuminate the walls because that’s what your eye sees first.” He plans to display art on the walls upon completion of the project and says lighting is key to doing that properly.

Even though it is the Gulyases’ goal to have their home as tightly sealed as possible, fresh air is constantly circulating through it. A mechanical energy recovery ventilator (ERV) is a wheel with “pie pieces” that resemble the texture of steel wool. As hot air from outside touches these filtering pie pieces, the heat is absorbed, and cool air flows into the house instead.  According to David, the house “literally has a set of lungs” which covers 95 percent of the heating and cooling for the entire home.

The amount of supplementary heat needed, for example, is equivalent to what a single room unit would provide. David describes his home as a “One Watt House,” meaning that it takes one watt per square foot to heat the whole thing. Even on the coldest day of the year, just over 1500 watts are required, which is the equivalent of a hair dryer.

An ongoing process

In addition to major installments like insulation and the ERV ventilation system, smaller details in the Gulyas home prove just how environmentally intentional the building process was. The kitchen countertops are made from Indiana limestone, and the cabinets are made from wood harvested in Ohio. Each of the two toilets have a .6 gallon flush option in addition to the normal 1.6 gallon flush, and David designed a special closet in the laundry room for drying clothes to eliminate the need for an electric dryer. Even paint and lacquer treatments that go on must be taken into account with a LEED certified home.

Although the Gulyas construction budget has been exhausted for the time being, David and Carol can enjoy the benefits of energy efficiency by saving money on monthly electric bills. According to David, for his nearly 1800 square foot home, he pays between $40 and $80 each month in utility bills, which includes a monthly $8 Green Certification fee.

Looking out his back door from the kitchen, David sees the meadow grasses he planted that have now grown tall. He describes the deck that will eventually fill part of the back yard and some future landscaping plans. “I’ve got my work cut out for me,” he says. For David Gulyas, even when the construction of his home is complete, he will never be finished seeking out innovative, environmentally conscious ways to design and build. “I want to feel like I’m connected to the neighborhood, maybe inspire someone,” David says. “I’m a little older, so I feel like I have a responsibility to do that.”

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Travel, Home: Worldwide adventures accent family’s sterling woods home

Published in Homes & Lifestyles of South-Central Indiana, October 2011

Beverly and Dennis McGuire love to travel with their children. Recently returning from a trip to South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore and Badlands, they relax together in the comfort of their family room. When they’re not busy traveling, the invitation for visitors is open. Hospitality is their way of life and the driving force behind a home that doesn’t require guests to take their shoes off — unless they’d be more comfortable that way.

The McGuires have always called Bloomington home. Four years ago, they decided it was time to move into a more spacious home that would better suit their lifestyle, one that revolves around family and friends. “As the kids grew older, we needed more room. We wanted to build and personalize everything,” Beverly says. They decided to purchase land and build a home in Sterling Woods.

Dennis, a partner at CPA firm BDK, jokingly interjects that the family refers to their home as “The House that Bev Built,” but Beverly, a retired school teacher, insists that she wasn’t the only one to give input on decisions. “I pretty much got what I wanted, though,” she admits.

“Hotel McGuire”

Working closely with builder Larry Ingram, the McGuires set out to create a space completely their own, from the floor plans to the lighting design and even details as small as cabinet hardware. Their children, Patrick, 28, Christopher, 24, and Megan, 18, were the inspiration behind much of the building layout, especially the full walkout basement.

Christopher, home for the summer from the University of Michigan, sits on the basement couch in front of the big screen TV, unbothered by his parents’ presence at the neighboring wet bar. “We designed this area specifically so the kids can play,” Beverly says. She and Dennis recall Megan’s many sleepovers with friends who commonly referred to the basement guest area as “Hotel McGuire.” Though Beverly considers the basement to be a work in progress, the space is used often, especially as an entrance to the pool deck.

The McGuires’ sloped lot lends itself perfectly to a walkout basement and pool / hot tub area, Dennis says. Shawn Eurton of Mother Nature Landscaping worked with the McGuires to create the landscape design around the textured stone pool deck. “We have nice privacy with our landscape,” Dennis says. “But we also have great neighbors.”

White columns support an upstairs screened-in porch that can be accessed from an outdoor spiral staircase. The screened-in porch opens from the kitchen and also leads to an exposed deck that connects with the Beverly and Dennis’ bedroom. “We spend a lot of time out here,” Beverly says. “We see a lot of critters.” Fox, raccoon, deer, and skunk are among the “critters” Beverly mentions.

When Megan returns home from her shift at the Bloomington Carwash, she goes upstairs to the room she helped design. Covered in a blanket, she watches a movie from the chair and matching footstool she chose as part of her bedroom set. “We wanted the kids to pick out their own furniture so they can take it with them someday,” Beverly says. In Megan’s connecting bathroom, the cabinet handles are small figurines of places she’s visited. “The Eiffel Tower, Big Ben,” Beverly says, pointing them out on the doors below the sink.

Next door, Christopher’s room looks out over the pool deck. The large wooden headboard and desk were his to choose, as was the location of his room —after Megan had her pick, he says. A connecting bathroom and shelf of recognizable structure figurines, including Mount Rushmore and Fenway Park are more fond reminders of the family’s travels.

The third upstairs bedroom — Patrick’s — mimics the style of the other two, but is mostly empty of personal belongings since he currently lives in Indianapolis, working as a research assistant at IUPUI. Beverly explains that the goal with the kids’ bedrooms was to provide privacy now and into the future. “When they bring guests home, and eventually mates, we want them to feel like they have their own space,” she says.

Design details

Downstairs, the front entrance sets the tone and color theme for the home. “Red is just my favorite color,” Beverly says, explaining that the kids sometimes tease her for her color palette of choice. Tones of crimson and maroon are dominant in the home’s front rooms, from the rope border pattern in the carpet to the floor-length drapes. The unity in the color scheme was intentional, Beverly says, in case she wants to make slight design changes down the road. “It’s nice because you can switch accessories and make the room different, but it’s still your stuff.”

A black and white marble floor is a modern contrast to the patterned carpet, which also runs up the wood and wrought iron staircase. “We did it with a lot of personality,” Beverly says, standing next to the first of many rounded corners that serves as a transition from room to room. “I like the softness of it as opposed to the rigidity of a square corner,” she explains.

All of the front windows of the McGuires’ home are arched. Working with Carolyn Stevens, an interior designer from Carmel, Ind., Beverly decided on window treatments that would highlight the arches from both the inside and outside. A sheer curtain is pulled across the dining room window, but the drapes are stationary to the left and right, hanging from hardware that resembles oversized doorknobs.

Looking through the dining room hutch, Beverly recalls where she acquired the silver and china that line the shelves — some from Italy, England, and Ireland, some inherited from a great aunt. “We travel a lot and always try to pick up things we can use in the house, not things that just sit there,” she says.

The neighboring front room was intended to be a formal living area but turned into a piano room after Dennis bought a reconditioned 1891 Steinway grand piano for Beverly as an anniversary gift. Dennis, a marathon runner, purchased the piano in New York after a race. The piano occupies the majority of the space in the room, facing the front arched windows that flood the room with light.

The kitchen is where Beverly says she spends most of her time. She walks around the center island to flip on lights that illuminate the cabinets, buffet area, prep sink, and patchwork backsplash above the stove. “We have lights everywhere in this house,” Beverly says. The McGuires worked with Bishop lighting during construction, every room complete with dimmer switches and multiple levels of illumination. Two hanging lamps above the island are a focal point with a wrought iron base and crystal beads that spiral up toward the ceiling — the exact same fixtures that can be found at the West Baden Hotel in French Lick, Ind., according to Beverly.

The kitchen leads to a breakfast area that overlooks the McGuires’ pool and wooded yard, the family room, the master bedroom suite, and one of Beverly’s favorite parts of the house — the powder room. “It has a French flare to it,” she says, pointing to the textured brownish-gold wall treatment, red ceiling, and white and gold leaf trim. The towel bars and sink handles in the powder room are adorned with Swarovsky crystals to match those on the leafy sconce light fixtures. The same black and white marble tile covers the powder room floor.

Just across the hall, Beverly and Dennis step into their master suite, complete with a swivel chair seating area that overlooks the back yard and a touch-activated sound system. Though Dennis says he can often hear the racecars from the nearby speedway, he and Beverly both find their bedroom to be a peaceful place they can go to relax.

The attached his-and-hers bathroom area features a linen closet in the space where a bath tub would typically go. With just a stand-up shower and separate sink areas, Beverly says they have all they need to “get ready without bumping into each other.” She opens the door to her closet — Dennis has an identical one near his sink — revealing built-ins and cedar walls. Beverly says she wanted crystal doorknobs and cedar closets because she grew up with them and when given the chance, she wanted to incorporate the memory into her own home. The far wall of each closet is another arched window that faces the front of the house.

The best part of life

Though Beverly still considers some areas of the house to be works in progress, including an upstairs bonus room and parts of the basement, she and Dennis are both happy with what they have been able to achieve with their home. “There aren’t many things we’d change,” Dennis says.

“It’s very livable, comfortable, and family-friendly,” Beverly agrees.

More importantly than their home, the McGuires take obvious joy in spending time as a family. “We work and play and take care of the kids,” Beverly says. “That’s the best part of life.”

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The details of a DCS Case: Department of Child Services attorney Anna Sebree dedicates her life to helping the helpless

As her meeting with a case manager ends, she lowers her head to rest it on her folded arms atop her desk. “Deep breath,” she reminds herself in a whisper. She lingers in this position, stealing a few silent moments to digest the roadblock that was just presented to her. Collecting herself, she lifts her head and reaches for her lipstick-stained Starbucks cup, still half full of the strong black coffee that gets her through the day.

Anna Sebree, Monroe County Department of Child Services (DCS) Staff Attorney, is spending her Tuesday the way she normally spends it, hosting meetings with caseworkers in the revolving door that is her office.

“Beat on his doors and his windows until he signs those papers if he doesn’t want to have contact with his child. If he does want contact, he needs to get his ass in here,” she says to Cassie Williams, a DCS case manager who is working with Sebree to terminate a father’s parental rights.

Typically the father would be ordered by a judge to sign the paperwork, but today’s frustration is that somewhere along the line, the ball was dropped, and this particular father was never legally ordered to undergo any services. Because there is no documentation to show his noncompliance with the services, Sebree and Williams have to use alternative methods.

“This is one example of why we shouldn’t have as big of a case load; we should catch things like this,” Sebree said. Three years ago, she walked into her new position at DCS and was greeted by 300 cases, all dealing with abused and neglected children ranging from newborns to just under 18 years of age. The standard that defines her job is “Are the kids safe?” In answering that question, she tends to each case individually, constantly dealing with foster care placements, recommending services for abusive parents, and potentially filing to terminate parental rights.

The day-to-day

Every Monday Sebree spends the entire day in court, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or later, presenting a different case every 15 minutes to Judge Stephen Galvin. These cases, referred to as CHINS (Child in Need of Services), are when Sebree presents information that could potentially place abused children in foster care, given there is probable cause to do so. In a case in which there is probable cause, the parents are given the option of a hearing, which Sebree says they typically deny.

If parents deny a hearing, they must admit to the abuse and come to an agreement as to which services they will undergo before regaining custody of their children. According to Sebree, services range from psychological therapy to parenting classes and drug rehabilitation. “The goal is to get the kids back in the home,” she said. In order for this to happen, the parents must comply with their ordered services within 12 months or Sebree and her team will file for the termination of their parental rights. “Unfortunately,” she said, “that happens more than I would like it to.” In termination cases, the children are placed for adoption.

Michael LoPrete is Sebree’s legal counterpart at the Monroe County DCS.  Six months ago, he was hired to share her caseload, a hiring move for which Sebree says she is endlessly grateful.

“I absolutely rely on her,” LoPrete said, “especially on her expertise on how the system works.” Today he is spending time in Sebree’s office, exchanging news on numerous cases.

“I’ve been concerned about proof in this case for some time,” Sebree says.

“This is Judge Galvin – have we ever lost a CHINS?” LoPrete replies.

“I’m fine with going to court and losing if it’s worth it, but I don’t know if it’s worth it,” Sebree adds.

The two discuss foster families who are no longer willing to keep the children who have been placed with them. They move on to a father in jail who was recently stabbed in the neck by his wife while (she claims) she was trying to commit suicide. “We’re another voice for each other,” LoPrete said. “We get to know each other’s cases because we’re not both here all the time; we end up advising each other and covering for each other a lot.”

Sebree also relies heavily on the case managers who are the ones interacting directly with the parents in each case. “I work pretty closely with Anna. We really try to be on the same page,” Dena Novak, a DCS case manager said. In Sebree’s office, Novak shares a story of a mother who vomited in her car on account of her drug withdrawals. They discuss the next steps for the mother and her chances of regaining custody of her 5 children.

Past in the present

Sebree’s path to law was never meticulously mapped out. She graduated from Marian College in Indianapolis with a degree in sociology, and it wasn’t until 8 years later that she considered returning to school. “Never in a million years would I have told you I would become a lawyer in my earlier days. I had no interest,” Sebree said. Choosing between a master’s degree in social work and a law degree became a matter of options. “I thought (a law degree) would open a lot of doors, and a social work degree might pigeonhole me into a specific type of work,” she said.

Her first job out after graduating from the IU Law School was as a clerk for White & White, a personal injury law firm in Indianapolis. Personal injury law didn’t satisfy her passion for public interest, she said, so she began to spend time volunteering with the Monroe County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children program. Her foot in the door with CASA is what led her to her current position at the Monroe County DCS.

The duties of a DCS attorney are unique, as are the personal effects of working constantly to defend abused and neglected children. “Some of the cases hit really close to home, especially at first, because I hadn’t figured out how to deal with the trauma,” Sebree said. “They call it secondary trauma.”

As a child, Sebree was a victim of abuse and also witnessed domestic violence and drug usage between her parents. She recalls a time in 8th grade when she wore shorts to school the day after her father had beaten her with a belt, leaving black and blue welts up and down her legs up to her waist. She was tired of the abuse and wanted someone to notice. “None of the teachers asked,” she said. “None of the other adults I came into contact with me asked. Nobody said anything.” In 2011, Sebree said, a similar situation would not occur. “Today if a kid showed up to school like that, somebody (from DCS) would be out there in an hour.”

One of Sebree’s motivations and strong connections to her career as a DCS attorney is to help the children who would have flown under the radar years ago like she did. She admits, though, that the emotional nature of the cases she deals with can take its toll on an attorney, which has contributed to a high turnover rate in DCS lawyers in the U.S. “I remember having to close my office door or go outside to cry before I’d come back in because, especially as an attorney, you don’t want to show that side of yourself – that weak side.”

She attributes her ability to withstand the intensity of the cases with her ability to balance her work life with her home life, though, she admits, she does bring work home on occasion. “You have to let go at the end of the day,” she said. “If you don’t, it will eat you up. There’s a fine line – you have to have empathy, but you can’t be so involved that it drains you.” Lining her office shelves are photos of her three children, and an oversized easel paper with a drawing from her daughter serves as wall décor, constant reminders that each day brings a time when she can flip the switch and be Mom and Wife.

Resting her elbows on her desk, she brings her fingers up to her temples and exhales as she read the documents that were just dropped off for her. “Do we have any hearings tomorrow that you can think of?” she asks LoPrete, systematically adding her signature to the documents. Small mountains of green file folders are exploding with paperwork, one of which she places in her briefcase bag. She’ll be taking work home tonight.

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Poverty & Domestic Violence:  A report on the role of transitional employment

Through the hum of industrial kitchen appliances, her voice can be heard instructing her employees about oven temperatures and the proper knife for the job. She oversees the assigned tasks from behind her pot of simmering chili, available to answer questions with a patience that has developed over her eight years in this kitchen, guiding her employees – all victims of domestic violence.

Gathered around oversized stainless steel counters, six women are in the kitchen with her this morning. Two are chopping lettuce for a salad, three are putting the finishing touches on mini Stromboli, and one is washing dishes. Some are in their twenties. Some are middle-aged and older. All in hairnets or bandanas, aprons, and oven mitts, they have more in common now than the abuse they have survived.

Susan Dahlberg, 66, is executive chef at Food Works, a catering business owned by Middle Way House, a Bloomington agency that provides emergency and transitional housing for victims of domestic violence. A cook since age 9, she has had to teach herself the ins and outs of catering more recently, and more importantly, the ins and outs of working with such a unique population of employees. “The women here, from their backgrounds, they’ve got emotional issues, sometimes psychological issues,” she said. “They are under extraordinary circumstances and constraints.”

The circumstances Dahlberg mentions are more often than not related to poverty. Domestic violence and poverty are so closely linked that it’s common for women to arrive in battered women’s shelters without belongings, financial resources, or any practical work experience likely to secure more than a minimum wage-earning job.

“Women who reported having been abused at some point in their lives had experienced more spells of unemployment; greater job turnover; and significantly higher rates of receipt of AFDC, Medicaid, and food stamps,” according to Domestic Violence: Prevalence and Implications for Employment Among Welfare Recipients, a report from the United States General Accounting Office.

The women in Dahlberg’s kitchen come from a variety of backgrounds, all carrying their own baggage from abusive relationships, all facing barriers to employment. But she’s not here to counsel the women or learn the details of what brought them to Middle Way House. She is here to be their boss and teach the women practical skills while they are in recovery.

“Transitional work” is defined as temporary, subsidized employment in a supportive environment for those who lack work experience, education, or training. These transitional work programs exist to give participants time to gain skills and confidence as well as an incentive to find permanent employment, according to a 2002 study, Transitional Jobs: Stepping Stones to Unsubsidized Employment. Food Works falls into this category.

Ever-present in Dahlberg’s mind is the opportunity she has to help shape the lives of her employees through their transitional work experiences. “My impact is teaching women skills,” she said. “The businesses of Middle Way House help transition going from the shelter to something they can rely on. That’s important to their success and well being.”

A unique work environment

Dahlberg’s mission is in harmony with that of a growing number of battered women’s shelters across the country. Of approximately 1.7 million “disconnected” mothers (mothers who do not receive welfare benefits as a result of their inability to remain employed) in the U.S., 57 percent cited multiple barriers to work, including domestic violence, according to a 2007 article from The Future of Children. Because of the startling statistics linking domestic violence and poverty, more shelters have implemented programs to address economic independence as a preventative measure to keep victims from their abusers.

Economic independence for victims of abuse is exactly what Toby Strout, executive director of Middle Way House, had in mind when she applied for the grants to start the agency’s businesses 15 years ago. Her vision of an environment where undereducated, low-skilled women can work for more a living wage – and begin to feel empowered as a result – has come to life in the form of Food Works and Middle Way’s other business, Confidential Document Destruction. Strout said: “It becomes a gentler place to learn both the soft and job-specific skills that they need to master. Nobody’s going to yell at them. They’re going to be allowed to make mistakes and given the opportunity to learn from them.”

In Dahlberg’s position, she is the one who helps to provide that “gentler place.” Despite the elimination of harsh realities that can accompany employment in the community, she still sees countless women come and go and is less than surprised about the turnover. It’s to be expected. The constant refreshing of employees in no way diminishes the positive growth she has seen in them through the years, though. “You’d be amazed in how a person’s confidence goes up when they’ve made something from scratch for the first time,” she said.

The confidence that Dahlberg helps to foster is alive and well in the Food Works kitchen this morning. Gina Simpson proudly tells a story of a conversation she had yesterday. When a mother asked her son why he would eat spinach prepared by the Food Works staff and not at home, his response was: “They don’t make it yucky like you do.” The staff prepares and serves food for two local schools each day and light up at the mention of the students – their “babies.”

Buzzing around the kitchen in a hurry with handfuls of food and metal utensils doesn’t stop the women from showering Dahlberg with praise. “She is the most patient chef I’ve met in my life,” Terri Logan said. “She’ll take time to show you how to do it, and before we walk out the door, she always tells us to have fun. She’s awesome.” When Dahlberg overhears Logan’s comments, she informs her, jokingly, that Logan will not be receiving any special treatment for her kind words.

Support from employers

In addition to Middle Way House’s transitional work program, the agency also offers regular workshops for women who are seeking employment in the “outside world.” Topics ranging from resume building to interview techniques are meant to prepare women for experiences they may undergo for the first time. Survivors of domestic violence are not the only ones who face challenges in the workplace, however. A growing number of employers are learning what it means to work with a person who has experienced abuse.

Some community organizations exist to orient employers to specific challenges that may arise when employing a victim or perpetrator. The Bloomington Domestic Violence Task Force is one such organization, bringing together a diverse community to address issues of advocacy and education regarding domestic violence.

A current project for the Task Force is the preparation of sample personnel policies for employers. A spring conference will more directly address these issues, according to Beverly Anderson, Bloomington Safe and Civil City Director, who also oversees the Task Force. “This next (conference) will be for employers, talking about domestic violence in the workplace – what to look for, how to identify it, how to respond to it, how not to respond to it, what to do when a perpetrator comes on the work site,” she said.

Training for both employers and their workers is necessary when it comes to job retention. Employers who are not sensitive to the needs of those who have experienced domestic violence are less likely to deal patiently with absences and tardiness among other issues, which often results in the victim’s return to a state of joblessness.

Employers’ reactions are all over the map when it comes to Middle Way residents’ unusual behavior on the job, according to Strout. Sometimes employers call her, genuinely concerned that a woman didn’t return to work. Sometimes, though, relationships between the employer and the agency are broken because neither party was prepared for the cooperative efforts the work relationship required.

The goals of Middle Way House are aligned with Leslie M. Tutty’s post-shelter research, which indicates in the study of 6,000 women from 50 Texas shelters, that the women were more likely to live independently after a shelter stay if they had achieved economic independence, which is defined as, “having their own transportation, childcare, and source of income.”

The agency provides free childcare and youth programs as a way to support the working mothers, as well as a car purchasing program. Strout said: “They are workers, yes, but that they also are mothers. They’re single mothers. They’re struggling. And we would love for them to be active members of their communities.”

Reaching success

Tutty’s research, like that of many others, indicates that as more and more organizations put an emphasis on the link between poverty and domestic violence, an increasing number of women will enter the workforce with a renewed sense of independence, seeing themselves as survivors rather than victims.

Anderson also cites the importance of community involvement as a factor in helping survivors of domestic violence to function healthily in society. She said: “It’s a social service agency issue. It’s a local government issue. It’s a faith community issue. It’s a law enforcement issue. It’s something that the entire community can come together and respond to and make sure those systems are in place.”

Dahlberg’s outlook is positive for Food Works and its employees. She prides herself on teaching them to make all of the food from scratch and is hopeful that within the next few years, more doors will open for relationships with local producers as well as a higher response to the kitchen’s new retail store. A pan covered in tin foil sits on the counter next to Dahlberg. Its label reads, “stuffed peppers for retail store.” She admits that the kinks are still being worked out. It’s all a part of the growing process.

For some of the employees at Food Works, this kitchen is the safest place they have known in years. It is more than a job; it’s a way to show their children that they are dependable. It’s a way to rebuild and persevere in the face of adversity. It’s a way to gain independence and a sense of empowerment. “I love my job,” Logan said. “There’s no chaos, and everyone helps each other. When I get up in the morning, I can’t wait to come in and see what we’re making.”

In addition to the positive reactions from current Food Works employees, Strout recalls success stories of former residents who are now healthy, contributing members of society. One former resident went on to get her GED, college diploma, and law degree and now works as a legal advocate for victims of domestic violence. Others, she said, have stayed in the food industry and worked their way up into supervisory positions. “People put their lives back together,” she said, “even if it’s kind of a financial struggle.”

Dahlberg and three of the women are still in the Food Works kitchen, and the others have just left in the delivery van. The remaining cooks breathe a sigh of relief before their next project begins. Dahlberg sweeps through the largest part of the kitchen on a mission to find oregano. She weaves in and out of the maze of metal counters, always available to guide her employees through the transition most integral to their success as survivors of domestic violence.

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Active Seniors: Local businesses value seniors’ longtime pursuits

Published in BizNet (Bloomington Herald-Times special section), Fall 2011

Diane Thayer still loves going to work every day. At age 70, her employment at the Monroe County YMCA gives her the opportunity to “play” on a daily basis while helping others do the same — her favorite part of the job, she says.  Director of Prime Time Wellness, a fitness program that specializes in serving YMCA members over 50, she is the perfect example of the benefits of remaining active as a senior.

Lifelong Wellness

“Any time you read about aging and how people are doing that successfully, one of the things is stay engaged, be involved,” Thayer said. Through Prime Time, the Monroe County YMCA offers programs like Senior Swim Lanes, the Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program, yoga, beachball wally ball, and strength and flexibility classes for active seniors.

YMCA members over 50 are not limited to the Prime Time programming, though. “Some folks just feel a little more comfortable being with people their own age. It’s just a choice they make,” Thayer said. Part of the YMCA’s mission is to provide “programs that build a healthy spirit, mind, and body for all,” according to its website, and part of that, Thayer says, is reaching the senior demographic.

“Because our Y is really a building of community, we define that as serving the entire age range — not just serving them, but having those folks as leaders, as well.” One of the most popular yoga instructors at the Monroe County YMCA is 79. There are other instructors in their 70s and 60s, Thayer said, which is a comfort to some senior members. “In some cases,” she said, “they feel (the older instructors) understand them better.” She does not discount the value of seniors learning from younger instructors, though, and said that some seniors prefer them.

Regardless of the age of the instructor, Thayer’s hope is that new members feel welcomed and encouraged in whatever they set out to accomplish. “I want them to feel that we pay attention to them and respond to their particular needs,” she said. Prime Time members are required to submit a health history and physician’s approval, which allow instructors to respond readily to each senior’s individual abilities and needs. “It may be walking from this bench to the next bench, but I want them to feel affirmed.”

Lifelong Learning

Opportunities for seniors in Bloomington are not limited to the physical. IU’s Bloomington Continuing Studies program offers courses year-round for non-degree-seeking community members, including seniors, according to director Kyla Cox. “Seniors are looking for a way to engage in the community,” she said. “Maybe they’re coming in at the end of a 40-year career, or maybe they have needs that the community hasn’t met that we come in and meet.”

Bloomington Continuing Studies partners with local retirement communities Meadowood and Bell Trace. “In doing that, we’re able to bring the classroom to those who are in those communities,” Cox said. The on-site courses vary from topics like “The Literary Warnings of the Holocaust” to one offered each semester called “Issues and Experts.”

Bloomington Continuing Studies also offers discounts on classes for seniors who may not be a part of a retirement community. According to Cox, it is beneficial for all learners to have diverse age groups represented in their classes. “It’s important to have seniors in these kinds of programs because they’re bringing in a wealth of knowledge with them,” she said. “We’re learning from each other, and it’s critical that we get to hear from a senior perspective. That makes every form of class more enriching for everyone.”

Mini University is another Bloomington Continuing Studies program that tends to draw in seniors, Cox said. Mini University takes place on IU’s campus every June and features a week of lifelong learning courses taught by the university’s finest faculty. “It draws those who are retired because they can take a week off to enjoy the learning activities and social events,” she said.

Lifelong Communities

Both the Monroe County YMCA and Bloomington Continuing Studies focus on reaching out to the entire community, partnering with other organizations to make sure that the senior demographic is reached. The College Mall is another local business that values these partnerships in providing services for seniors, according to Catherine Fisher, director of mall marketing and business development.

“We reach out to the local senior organizations and facilities,” she said. “Several of them have buses, and they just come in off a bus and go walking and shopping.” The College Mall hosts events and groups that cater to the interests of seniors including Mall Pacers, a free mall walker membership program. Mall Pacers are welcome to walk laps in the mall from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Sundays.

“It’s a safe environment for them to be able to come in and walk,” Fisher said. “It’s safe because they’re indoors and don’t have to worry about slipping and falling.” The College Mall partners with IU Health to provide monthly “Fit Stops” to Mall Pacer members. Fit Stops include free blood pressure and blood sugar testing as well as low-cost blood cholesterol testing on the third Wednesday of each month.

Fisher has had the opportunity to oversee the Mall Pacers events and occasionally talks with members when they come to walk. “From what I’ve gathered (the seniors) have got a lot they can do,” she said. “They take in a lot of community events. It helps keep them active.”

Lifelong teaching

Diane Thayer will retire at the end of 2011. Since the beginning her involvement with the YMCA as a volunteer in 1976, she has welcomed people of all ages, including seniors, and doesn’t plan to stop in retirement. “I love teaching and intend to continue doing it. I have a passion for it,” she said. “I love to see (seniors) being the most they can be, connecting with people on their way to wellness, joy, and fulfillment.”

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Reviews

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A review of the new book by David Sedaris

David Sedaris’ collection of quirky, quippy short stories and creative nonfiction essays spans the whole gamut of topics and characters, exploring situations which often leave the reader wondering, “Did that really happen?” In his latest endeavor, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: a Modest Bestiary, Sedaris shifts from tales about neighbors and family members to a collection of short stories starring only animals, a feat few authors could tackle with the same authenticity.

Squirrel Meets Chipmunk is a series of 16 short stories, titles including “The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat” and “The Vigilant Rabbit,” upon first glance a slight nod to Aesop’s Fables. Stories range from four to 20 pages in length, and there is not a human being to found in any of them.

Instead, Sedaris gives the animal characters human qualities. They are all able to speak, of course. Some go to the salon or out on dates. “The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig” features a journalist parrot and museum operator pig whose greatest concern when grossly misquoted in a story is that he was referred to as “potbellied.” In “Hello, Kitty,” a cat undergoing AA treatment in jail is finally able to admit his alcoholism after an altercation with a fellow mouse inmate.

Their qualities appear, at first, to be strictly human, but Sedaris has a way of reminding the reader in subtle ways that what makes these stories funny and interesting is that the characters are animals. If substituted for people, they just wouldn’t pack the same punch. Husband and wife Irish setters in “The Faithful Setter” deal with the issue of fidelity in a way that dogs-with-human-qualities would be expected to:

Still, though, I can’t help but love her – forgave her even after she cheated. ‘They are too your children,’ she’d said, referring to her last litter, a party of four that looked no more like me than that dick of a raccoon. I knew they were fathered by the English bull terrier across the street, but what are you going to do? Everyone’s entitled to one mistake, aren’t they?

In Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, unlike Sedaris’ most beloved works, among them Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, the reader is presented with concise moral tales which often end abruptly. The reader may find himself laughing aloud throughout the first eight pages of “The Mouse and the Snake,” but on page nine, when the lighthearted mood shifts to a more truthful portrayal of how a mouse and snake would interact in the wild, laughter will inevitably dissipate into a brief moment of disappointment. But then, it’s all over.

Sedaris’ get-in-and-get-out formula works for his Modest Bestiary.  The stories don’t drag on. They’re not forced. They’re not gimmicky despite the animal theme. Even in the four-page “The Cat and the Baboon,” he manages to vividly characterize a hair stylist baboon who can’t keep her mouth shut about her prejudices toward marsh rabbits, squirrels, and dogs.

The obvious focus on the dialogue between the animals is what propels each story and renders each character memorable. In a conversational faux pas, the baboon exclaims to the cat in her salon chair,

Some kind of spaniel walked in yesterday, asking for a shampoo, and I sent him packing, said, ‘I don’t care how much money you have, I’m not making conversation with anyone who licks his own ass.’

Any reader with an unreasonably weak stomach may not want to attempt this book. A surprising amount of violence is sprinkled into the majority of the stories – a baby lamb who gets his eyes plucked out, an abused and murdered circus bear, a lab rat who gets injected with the AIDS virus, and chickens who get their necks wrung, among others. Sedaris’ regard for details like the food chain and natural animal interactions is evident throughout Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. While the violent endings are, at times, disturbing, they emerge as authentic and largely expected from an author who has mastered the art of telling a somber story in the most humorous of ways.

To add to this graphic nature, Ian Falconer’s illustrations accompany each story, often depicting the violent, twisted fates of the animal characters. An illustrator for the New Yorker, to which Sedaris also frequently contributes, his images teeter on the edge of “disturbing” but are a happy surprise, separating story from story.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is funny, memorable, and slightly unsettling  – a must-have for fans of David Sedaris’ work. Readers will have a hard time seeing storks, cows, and owls the same way ever again.

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Kiss Each Other Clean: A review of the new album by Iron & Wine

One-man folk band Iron & Wine is best known for singer/songwriter Sam Beam’s hushed vocals, lo-fi arrangements, and reliance on finger-picked acoustic guitar-driven melodies. His emergence onto the indie music scene with The Creek Drank the Cradle in 2002 was an introduction to his signature sound, one that was made even more familiar thanks to 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days.

It wasn’t until 2007, with the release of The Shepherd’s Dog, that fans were able to experience a multi-dimensional body of work from Iron & Wine. Adding staccato percussion, reggae guitar riffs, and occasional pedal steel turned soft-spoken Beam into a hot commodity, especially after the album was named one of Paste’s top 10 albums of the year.

Getting over the initial shock of Beam’s decision to sign with Warner Brothers after eight years on Sub Pop would be the first challenge for Iron & Wine fans to overcome with January’s release of Kiss Each Other Clean. The next would be how to assess the follow up to his most critically acclaimed album to date, asking themselves once and for all if they prefer a progression into a more aggressive sound or the traditional, quiet Iron & Wine “oldies.”

The problem is that Kiss Each Other Clean is a little bit of both. While the 10-track album, as a whole, is an extension of the sound that made The Shepherd’s Dog so popular, there are still elements of those whispered ballads that originally made Iron & Wine such a hit in the indie world 10 years ago.

The most notable difference between Kiss Each Other Clean and all of Iron & Wine’s previous releases is Beam’s vocal style. Now, more than ever, his vocals are projected, and we get to hear him sing in full voice. In “The Tree by the River,” Beam sings, “Now I’m asleep in a car; I mean the world to a potty-mouthed girl and pair of pretty blue-eyed birds,” with a crispness free from his signature whisper that has a tendency to blend his vocals into the background.

“Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me” is the album’s seven-minute finale in which the listener can’t help but sense Beam’s newfound angst, due in large part to the discordant electric guitars and chanting background vocals, but mostly because of his vocals, which are on the verge of shouting, yet manage to maintain the haunting melody.

“Rabbit Will Run” bears a striking resemblance to The Shepherd’s Dog’s “Wolves,” featuring layered, more subdued vocals and driving percussion. It’s a song that could have fit in perfectly on the last Iron & Wine album, but its presence on Kiss Each Other Clean is a solid nod to his most recent body of work, while serving as a unifying thread between his new, more forceful approaches and muted signature style.

“Godless Brother in Love,” a piano ballad, is a story about a woman and her children – not unfamiliar subject matter for Beam. His wife and five daughters have undoubtedly inspired the female characters in his songs and, in particular, his ballads. “You can hear them on the hilltop laughing, cursing every bird in the air, telling them what fun they’re having, driving, eyes closed,” he sings in the chorus – just voices, piano, and lightly-plucked guitar. Nestled in between “Rabbit Will Run” and the up-tempo “Big Burned Hand,” which opens with a robust saxophone solo and funky electric guitar, “Godless Brother in Love,” is a welcome throwback for anyone who’s not sure yet about the “new” Iron & Wine sound.

Kiss Each Other Clean is Iron & Wine’s first album to come with a warning for explicit lyrics. This leap into more controversial language is lyrical proof of Beam’s evolution on this project and seems appropriate given the angst communicated through the vocals and instrumentation. It’s nothing distracting; he’s just chosen to beat around the bush a little less than he does in songs like Our Endless Numbered Days’ “Naked As We Came.”

One spin of this record (and I do suggest purchasing it on vinyl because it comes with a CD instead of a download code) may not be enough to win over old school Iron & Wine fans. But with his major label debut, Beam has done enough to rein in a new following, perhaps some who never would have identified with the subdued style of his first two releases.

Wait until the third or fourth time you listen to Kiss Each Other Clean to make an informed judgment. Underneath any preconceived notions regarding Iron & Wine’s move to Warner Brothers or his departure from the soft guitar ballads you miss from 2002, you’ll find a body of work that is both old and new at the same time: a decent mix of the lo-fi stylings that made you fall in love with Iron & Wine and a stronger dose of what made the world fall in love with The Shepherd’s Dog. They’re both good things.

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Journalism Education

Breathing new life into your writing with narrative storytelling: A guide for high school publications advisers and student journalists

Published in Quill & Scroll Magazine, November 2011

A note to advisers:

By the time they are accepted as staff members, your publication staff should already possess the skills necessary to produce a quality piece of journalism. They’ve passed the introductory journalism classes and are expected to understand how to conduct an interview and then construct a story, integrating quotes and relevant information. Now what?

For those students who are familiar with journalistic principles and consistently contribute quality pieces to the newspaper, it’s time to kick the writing up a notch! Moving away from traditional storytelling techniques and diving deep into a narrative approach will breathe new life into your paper that your readers won’t be able to help but notice.

What follows are tips, tools, and techniques for both interviewing and writing from professionals who know their stuff. They never once praise the inverted pyramid. They scoff at lazy leads. They urge writers to go beyond the ordinary. Implementing some of their best practices will undoubtedly take a so-so feature and turn it into the lunchroom topic of conversation.

First things first

When you introduce this new idea of narrative storytelling to your staff, they’ll probably look at you funny and ask you what you’re talking about. Simply put, “narrative” means “telling a story.” Though it’s most closely associated with fiction writing, it’s more than appropriate — and encouraged — for nonfiction writing, especially feature styles suited for most high school newspapers or newsmagazines that are published once or twice a month. In Telling True Stories, editor Mark Kramer writes, “In narrative work, characters move through an experience or set of experiences…characters take action over time, and events unfold.”

The goal, then, of narrative reporting is to tell readers the story by letting them into an experience. Let them feel like they’re eavesdropping on a top-secret conversation. Make them feel like they’re sitting in the subject’s bedroom. Give them a chance to live the story as you tell it — as you narrate it.

So “narrative” is a new way to tell a story. And it all starts with the interview.

The interview

The interview process is arguably the most important ingredient when cooking up a good narrative story. If you go into the kitchen and suddenly realize that you’re missing everything it takes to make your dish taste good, it’s just not going to work. The same is true for gathering information during an interview. If a reporter simply writes down quotes, he or she is missing out on those tasty ingredients — the elements that will bring a reader into a story. This, of course, means that phone interviews are off limits (unless necessary for breaking news, short brief, or weekly beat). A face-to-face interview in your subject’s environment is integral to the success of the story.

Meet your subject at his karate studio. Her church. His house. Her horse stable. Whatever the story is about, you need to be there.

  • Have three weeks to write a story? Arrange multiple face-to-face interviews or “observation sessions” with your subject. It will add depth and personality to your story.
  • In Telling True Stories, David Halberstam writes about the obvious lack of quality in “phonecall stories.” Gathering sound bites is important, but the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of a place are equally so. “I can always tell when a journalist is cheating,” he writes.

Narrative on location:

Talia Halliday’s table rests under stacks of books instead of place settings. The hutch in the corner is a home for art supplies — not fine china. Shelves burst with vintage books, photo albums, and small plastic shelves full of art supplies. Two sewing machines rest on a desk among a clutter of boxes on the floor and paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. Her dining room has become her studio.

Look! Don’t just listen.

Reporters can get in the habit of gluing their eyes to their notebooks, scribbling away furiously, trying to get every single word on paper. That’s great — but be sure to keep your eyes as open as your ears. From the moment you walk in the door, use your notebook to record the things you see.

  • Take notes on your subject’s mannerisms, physical characteristics, surroundings, and interactions with others.
  • Does she twirl her hair when she talks? Does he have four John Lenon posters in his room? What clothes is she wearing for her Habitat for Humanity workday?
  • In Tim Harrower’s book Inside Reporting, he writes that observation can lead to the best possible angle for a story. He asks, “What gestures, physical descriptions, or activities will add color to the story — or trigger new questions?
  • Spend time observing your subject as a “fly on the wall.” Scheduling time for observation will give you an intimate look into your subject’s life that you can pass on to your reader
  • The smallest details can make a huge difference, but sometimes we have a tendency to forget those details unless we make a conscious effort to record them. Keep your eyes peeled, and let no detail go undetected.

Observations in action:

Gathered around oversized stainless steel counters, six women are in the kitchen with her this morning. Two are chopping lettuce for a salad, three are putting the finishing touches on mini Stromboli, and one is washing dishes. Some are in their twenties. Some are middle-aged and older. All in hairnets or bandanas, aprons, and oven mitts, they have more in common now than the abuse they have survived.

Use your senses.

Sight. Smell. Taste. Sound. Touch. All of them have a place in narrative storytelling, but they can’t be incorporated unless the reporter is fully aware of his or her surroundings. Vivid descriptions bring your reader into the story, so be sure to take note of even those seemingly minute sensory details. Harrower writes in Inside Reporting, “As a reporter, you’re not simply a stenographer. You’re an eyewitness, a spectator with a front-row seat. You’re the eyes, the ears, the senses of the reader who visits the scene through the power of your words.” What a responsibility!

  • Is your subject playing a certain CD in the background? Did you get a whiff of her perfume when you entered her office? Does he offer you a homemade cookie at your interview? Does the old quilt on the couch have a certain texture?
  • Hear something interesting? Smell something curious? Don’t be afraid to ask! Get the name of the perfume. Ask what’s cooking. If the cat is meowing, ask what its name is.

Senses telling the story:

She easily goes unnoticed as the smell of freshly fried food steals her customer’s attention. Her dark, frizzy hair is forced into a black hat that casts a shadow over her thick eyebrows and kind, makeupless face. Beneath the harsh fluorescent lighting of the numbered-meal menu overhead, she doesn’t even notice herself — the way she deliberately punches the register buttons with one finger, rips the receipt tape in one fluid motion, and slams the drawer closed with purpose. Every. Single. Time.

Don’t be shy.

If your interview subject was kind enough to let you into his or her office, home, dance studio or church, chances are he or she won’t mind if you want to do a little more in-depth reporting. Don’t be afraid to request a closer look. Harrower writes, “…Interviewing is a social skill. You must be friendly, but aggressive. Polite, but probing…for many reporters, it’s the most fun part of the job.” So have fun!

  • Ask you interview subject to give you a tour. You’ll learn more about his or her environment, and more stories will come out.
  • See something interesting? Ask about it! Chances are your subject won’t offer detailed information unless you ask a specific question.
  • I see you have a shelf of trophies. What did you win them for?
  • Who are the people in this photograph on the wall?

Curiosity paying off:

Looking through the dining room hutch, Beverly recalls where she acquired the silver and china that line the shelves — some from Italy, England, and Ireland, some inherited from a great aunt. “We travel a lot and always try to pick up things we can use in the house, not things that just sit there,’ she says.

If you can learn to focus on the right kinds of information during your interview, your story will practically write itself — or at least give you a little more help than you’re used to. As the “narrator” of the story you write, the most important thing is to soak it all in so you can wring it all out for the reader. Be a sponge.

The Writing Process

If you’ve done what you should during the interview process, then writing your narrative story will come much more naturally. When all the pieces of the puzzle are on the table, it’s easier to see the complete picture — the picture that is yours to create with a narrative approach. Of course, every good story undergoes multiple rewrites, so your first narrative story isn’t just going to materialize overnight. It takes time and practice, and with these methods, you’ll be well equipped for writing an engaging story like you never have before.

Start with a bang!

The lead sets the tone for your entire story. When crafting a lead, think about the thread you want to weave from beginning to middle to end, as though you were making up a plot for fictional characters. Losing your reader in the first paragraph would be a waste of good reporting, so use your lead to entice your readers and keep them wanting more.

  • Avoid using direct quotes in leads, and NEVER start a lead with a question. Using a quote — unless it is a knockout quote or piece of relevant dialogue (we’ll discuss that later) — means the reporter was too lazy to craft his or her own original paragraph. Asking a question is just hokey.
  • Include description of your subject in action right off the bat. This is your opportunity to decide the starting point of your narrative.

Your story is about a student who volunteered on Thanksgiving:

“Ashley Jamison spent her time serving food at the local homeless shelter this Thanksgiving.”

 “With an ice cream scoop, she fills a corner of a Styrofoam plate with mashed potatoes and hands it to the first bearded man in line.”

  • In Inside Reporting, Harrower writes that narrative leads are like movies that “drop you right into the action — action that often continues throughout the story.” He’s right! Narrative leads are the beginning of the movie, and it’s your job to keep that momentum going until the end credits roll.

Keep the momentum going.

The narrative can’t stop at the lead! That’s just the beginning. By periodically returning to the action you introduced in your lead, the reader isn’t left hanging, wondering why you suddenly shifted gears after your narrative opening.

Return to the “scene” you set up. For example, in the story about the student volunteering on Thanksgiving, let’s say that it:

  • opens with a narrative lead
  • then introduces some key information about the student — maybe how she got involved with volunteering, how long she’s been doing it, etc. for a paragraph or two.

 Now it’s time to cut back to your narrative.

  • Is she helping a new homeless guest now? Would it be fitting to describe her apron or the interaction she has with fellow volunteers? Did you overhear any dialogue between your subject and one of the homeless guests?
  • Don’t over do it! You want to “sprinkle” the narrative throughout your story or imagine it as a thread that weaves in and out at different times. Overkill will turn your reader off, but the right balance of “show” and “tell” will lead the reader safely through your story from beginning to end.
  • In his book Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark writes about the importance of a scene. “The scene is the basic unit of narrative literature, the capsule of time and space created by the writer and entered by the reader or viewer. What we gain from the scene is not information, but experience.” Remember: when you create a scene, you create an experience for your reader.

Implement the ‘nut graf.’

“Nut graf” is a term you’ll hear being used by professional writers all over. In his book Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century, Chip Scanlan writes about the purpose of a nut graf: “The nut graf tells the reader what the writer is up to; it delivers a promise of the story’s content and message. It’s called the nut graf because, like a nut, it contains the kernel, or essential theme, of the story.”

  • Nut grafs are meant to be paired with narrative leads. The lead is the first paragraph, and the nut graf (typically) directly follows.
  • Harrower writes that the nut graf “condenses the story into a nutshell…And it’s vital. Without a nut graf, impatient readers may wonder What’s the point? and drift away, no matter how clever your lead is.” (This is why it’s so important not to overdo the narrative. A swift transition from scene to nut graf is best.)
  • A nut graf is information-driven. It answers the Who? When Where? How? questions — though it doesn’t need to give everything away in one little paragraph. More information can reveal itself throughout the rest of your story.

Narrative lead:

Operating her wooden spinning wheel, Pam Kinnaman gently pulls a clump of white fleece with an effortless technique as she watches it transform into yarn. Just outside, a pasture and barn are home to her very own flock of sheep and camelids — llamas and alpacas — whose names and personalities she knows like those of her own children. On her Bloomfield, Ind. Farm, with her husband Tim and host of fiber-bearing animals, Pam is living out her dream.

Nut Graf:

Eleven years ago, the Kinnamans purchased the farm that they found online. Midwest transplants from Florida, Pam began populating the farm with sheep just a couple years later. She started to accumulate Camelids more recently and says she’d like to have more. “I’m going crazy,” she says, about her acquisition of llamas and alpacas. “I just can’t stop. It’s an addiction.”

Include dialogue.

Since you’re weaving a thread of action throughout your story, it only makes sense that you would include dialogue. Not every direct quote needs to be an answer to one of your questions. If you paid attention and used your senses during the interview process, you probably write down all or part of a conversation your subject had — whether it was on the phone or with another person. Don’t be afraid to include this in your story.

  • In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark writes, “In many ways dialogue defines a story because its power drags us to the scene and sets our ears to the action…While quotes provide information or explanation, dialogue thickens the plot. The quote may be heard, but dialogue is overheard. The writer who uses dialogue transports us to a place and time where we get to experience the events described in the story.” The element of experience appears again — your reader wants one, and it’s your job to deliver one.
  • Dialogue, like most other writing techniques, should be used in moderation. Don’t include a 50-line conversation, and don’t return to the dialogue every other line. Give it some space to breathe and use it as a vehicle to tell your story — a tool that will drive your narrative approach.
  • Any story that includes dialogue should still have some direct quotes. Don’t sacrifice direct quotes for the sake of the dialogue.

Setup: “I absolutely rely on her,” LoPrete said, “especially on her expertise on how the system works.” Today he is spending time in Sebree’s office, exchanging news on numerous cases.

Dialogue: “I’ve been concerned about proof in this case for some time,” Sebree says.

“This is Judge Galvin — have we ever lost a CHINS?” LoPrete replies.

“I’m fine with going to court and losing if it’s worth it, but I don’t know if it’s worth it,” Sebree adds.

Context and direct quotes:

The two discuss foster families who are no longer willing to keep the children who have been placed with them. They move on to a father in jail who was recently stabbed in the neck by his wife while (she claims) he was trying to commit suicide. “We’re another voice for each other,” LoPrete said. “We get to know each other’s cases because we’re not both here all the time; we end up advising each other and covering for each other a lot.”

Watch your language.

When using a narrative approach, description is key. One of the most overused (though accurate and still relevant) phrases in journalism is “show, don’t tell.” Although a writer uses words to convey a story, there is still ample opportunity to “show” instead of “tell.” One way to move toward a style of “showing” is to avoid vague language that, despite what your English teacher may have told you, isn’t doing much of anything at all.

  • Adjectives and adverbs can be a journalist’s worst nightmare. Overusing them makes a description vague and can quickly turn your story into something too elementary for your audience.

“Lazily he hit the snooze button on his alarm clock. He was tired and sleepily turned over in his bed. He was exhausted and avoided waking up very steadfastly.”

 “He rolled over with a groan. 7 a.m. had come too early, and with one swift smack to the snooze button on his digital alarm clock, he was back where he wanted to be — under the covers and dreaming.”

  • Roy Peter Clark writes about adverbs (which can also be applied to adjectives), “Look for weak verb-adverb combinations that you can revise with stronger verbs: She went quickly down the stairs can become She dashed down the stairs. And He listened surreptitiously can become He eavesdropped. Give yourself a choice.”
  • In other words: simplifying your language will help drive your narrative story. Keep it clean, crisp, and focused. It would be a pity for adjective and adverb choices to distract from the heart and soul of your narrative piece.

Tie up loose ends.

At the end of your story, be sure to return to the scene that has been woven throughout your whole piece. To neglect it at the end would be to leave readers with a cliffhanger ending, which is confusing and frustrating. Take the story about the student who volunteers on Thanksgiving:

  • The story opened with a scene in which the student is scooping mashed potatoes to serve to a bearded homeless man at the local shelter.
  • The end of the story should conclude the scene for the reader. If you put in some good observation time during the interview process, you should have a lot of material to choose from.

Conclusion at work:

“After almost six hours of serving homeless families, Jamison is told she’s free to go. She unties her apron, splattered with gravy and cranberry sauce, and peels back her hairnet, ready to go home.

‘Bye, Miss Ashley!’ one man yells from the far table.

‘Happy Thanksgiving!’ she replies with a wave.”

  • A strong, memorable quote or bit of dialogue is considered to be one of the best ways to end a feature story. It works when using a narrative approach!
  • Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press is quoted in Harrower’s Inside Reporting. “You should hear (the ending) echoing in your head when you put the paper down,” he says. “It should stay with you and make you think a little bit.”
  • Harrower gives a few more tips on endings, including 1) “Don’t just stop a story because you ran out of material.” 2) “Don’t end stories by summarizing.” 3) “Avoid cute clichés.” (ex. “And that’s the way it is.”)

 

Personal Essay 

My Night at the Opera: A personal essay on the trials and triumphs of an opera rookie

I am an opera rookie. Or at least I was until a few nights ago when I ventured out to a university production of Charles Gounod’s Faust. I am also perpetually late. This second attribute of myself is much less forgivable in the world of performing arts and one which I was advised to overcome, if only for my inaugural night at the opera. I tried so hard.

NO LATE SEATING, my ticket read. With an 8 p.m. deadline, I left my apartment at 7:30 with all the confidence in the world that I would stroll into the Musical Arts Center with at least three or four minutes to spare. I kept a vigilant eye on my car’s digital clock on my way to pick up my friend Danielle, another perpetually late opera rookie. I pulled up to her apartment. 7:46. 7:47. 7:48. I scolded her for taking her sweet time as soon as she opened the passenger side door.

“We are never going to make it,” I told her.

“What do you think will happen if we’re late?” she asked.

We shared a vision of one of those church overflow rooms, either reserved for an overwhelming number of unexpected congregants or mothers with crying babies. “We’ll probably have to watch it on a TV for the first act,” I assumed, driving slightly over the speed limit. Watching opera on a TV in a room full of crying babies is not what I had in mind for my Friday night.

During our aggravated battle with the parking garage, we determined that running would be involved if we were to have any hope of reaching the doors in time. 7:56. 7:57. 7:58. With two minutes to spare, we began the most pitiful attempt at a sprint that that parking garage had ever seen. The image of Danielle daintily bopping along in her 5 inch stilettos is permanently burned into my memory. With ever tip-toeing step, I was coaching her along.

“I’m sweating!” she yelled from 20 feet behind me.

“You’re fine! We’re almost there!” was my kind, out-of-breath response. The end was in sight.

A few other stragglers were making their way through the doors of the Musical Arts Center just ahead of us. I regained my confidence – maybe we wouldn’t be banished to the TV room after all. Disheveled and breathless, we handed our tickets to the employee at the door. We were about to be judged.

“Get on the elevator; she’ll take you to the late seating,” was his only greeting to us as he pointed to his female coworker who was waiting for us in the elevator. My mind was racing with possibilities. Where could this purgatory elevator be taking us? All I knew in that moment is that it was taking us to the top floor, where the opera outcasts go.

Our small herd of latecomers filed out of the elevator, and the lady led us to a set of oversized double doors that looked like they could possibly open to the theatre, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. She opened the door, and I laid my eyes on an expanse of darkness and heard the swell of a live orchestra. It turns out, late opera rookies get sent to the third balcony – not a secret TV room. My first opera experience had been salvaged.

The third balcony was nearly empty, so we decided to occupy one of those side boxes – you know, the fancy mini-balconies that jut out over the floor seating from the left or right. When I sat down, I couldn’t help but feel like one of the old man Muppet critics, perched high above the other patrons with full license to say and do whatever I wanted. But after the stressful journey that led us to the opera, what I wanted to do was see Faust.

Even though it was my first time at the opera, I was aware of a few things:

  1. Faust is performed in French.
  2. I would have to read translations projected on a screen in order to understand the French.
  3. I would probably be doing this for at least three hours.

The curtain rose, and the first scene was set. I was on the edge of my seat, peering over a railing in anticipation of the story’s unfolding. What followed was an impressive display of talent, especially for university students. After every aria, I found myself wondering how long Faust and Marguerite had been participating in opera performance training and French lessons – I imagined that they were literally born singing (perhaps, in French). Clearly, I had no prior opera experiences with which to compare their voices, but I was impressed with their technique and obvious devotion to their craft.

Despite Faust’s categorization as a tragedy, I found myself chuckling from time to time, mostly at the mischievous devil, Mephistopheles. These few lighter moments helped to break up the emotionally taxing content of this particular opera, as did the two intermissions, both of which I am now grateful for. (Especially in the last two or three acts, I became visibly antsy and couldn’t help but shift in my seat every few minutes.)

Although we eventually moved from the third balcony down to the floor to sit with some friends, my view from the top was the highlight of my night at the opera. I could see the entire orchestra and maestro. I could see every person on the stage, even in first large ensemble scene where Faust and Marguerite first meet. I was closer to the supertitles and didn’t have to strain at all to read them while following along with the action on stage.

If I had been on time, I would have no such experience to speak of. I’m not telling you to be late to the opera, but I am telling you that if you’re late, it might just end up making your night. Now that I am a seasoned opera pro, I feel it is my duty to let you in on this little secret.

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