Friday, May 2, 2014

Marilyn Coffey, Great Plains Writer: Good Old Pratt Institute

Marilyn Coffey, Great Plains Writer: Good Old Pratt Institute: Became nostalgic for Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, where I taught for many years. Jumped on line to catch up with the news. Here's wh...

Good Old Pratt Institute

Became nostalgic for Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, where I taught for many years. Jumped on line to catch up with the news. Here's what I found:

About a day ago, a gunman unleashed a hail of bullets near Pratt Institute, hitting one 17-year-old girl in the torso, another in the leg and a 26-year-old man in the knee.

About  2 days ago, gunshots erupted near Pratt Institute's campus as a gunman hit a 20-year-old man, shot another in the arm, and a third in his hand. 

In recent months, near Pratt's campus:

An innocent bystander, Antonio Wilson, 23, was killed May 31 last year when a bullet, fired during a fight, pierced his chest.

In October last year Corey Brown, 21, tried to shoot someone but instead hit two other people. One, Nicoleia Taylor, 24, died.

These news items jolted my memory. 

Pratt is located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the second biggest ghetto in New York City. The biggest is Harlem.  

Teaching at Pratt I walked from the subway to class in the heart of that depressed community. There on campus, two masked teenagers held me up at gunpoint. There my students looked out a classroom window to watch a man stalked, shot and killed in the street. 

Remembering why I left New York for Nebraska jolted me. Here in my home state, I did find Omaha's ghetto an improvement on New York's. But it's not that much better. Except for size, North Omaha shares a lot with Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

However, in Nebraska I safely read newspaper accounts of North Omaha's many shootings and killings, anxious about the ghetto but relieved I don't live or work in that stubbornly depressed part of town.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014



to Mary Maresh of Caldwell, Texas, who celebrated her 105th birthday Monday April 28.

Her long life makes her special, but so does the fact that, at age two, she rode the Orphan Train from New York to Texas. There a loving family adopted her.

Latest statistics imply that as many as 400,000 children rode the trains to almost every state in the Union. Today, it's estimated that fewer than 50 of those children remain alive.

So Mary Maresh is also to be congratulated for being a member of that diminishing group.

from Marilyn June Coffey, MAIL-ORDER KID

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Tale in Three Parts

A Tale in Three Parts

Part 1: The Invitation

Melany Wilks, Library Director, Pioneer Memorial Library in Colby, KS, asked me to come speak and sell my books at her library during National Library Week.  I would be one of several writers who spoke at her luncheons during the April 14-18 week. Typically 35 to 70 people attend each presentation.

"Our audience loves to have authors share about their books, themselves and other interesting tidbits," Ms. Wilks wrote. "They like to purchase books and get them signed as well." 

I accepted.

Part 2: The Journey

When my straw boss, Paco Keopanya, and I set out from Omaha Monday morning for our 350-mile journey, the rain pelted the windshield.  

Somewhere near Lincoln, sheets of rain became sleet. Paco slowed down.  

Along about Grand Island, the sleet became a torrent of snow. The windshield wipers flapped wildly. Traffic slowed. Visibility plummeted. 

Rather than risk passing the Brown Transfer semi creeping in front of us, Paco followed it. He flipped on warning lights, and we inched along. Hardly anyone passed us. The few cars that did slipped in the growing piles of slush covering the left lane. 

The truck rolled slower and slower. Finally it, and we, stopped. After we sat for 15 minutes or so, Paco eased into the left lane. Trucks and cars lined up ahead of us as far as we could see. On either side of us, wet snow fell in lacy curtains in the silent afternoon. The sight took my breath away.

When the two-truck accident cleared ahead of us, we moved on into Kearney for gas. As we stepped out of the car, slush piled up around our ankles. "Shall we stop?" I asked Paco, and we nearly did, but instead pushed south on Highway 183. 

South of the Interstate, the blizzard broke. Big state trucks cleared the highway. We thought we'd stay over night in Alma, Nebraska, and drive to Colby in the morning. Food strengthened us. After a late lunch, we pushed on gratefully along a clear road through beautiful country. Snow? No one had seen it.

Part 3: The Insight

I'm used to public speaking. Since 1967, I've given more than 200 presentations in a variety of places: coffee houses, colleges, libraries, galleries, etc.  But this time, I decided to try a new way of warming up my audience.

I handed out sheets listing 10 possible questions audience members might ask about me as a writer. I answered one, as a sample, then asked people to call out the number of a question they wanted me to answer.

This worked well. I answered about three or four before I went on to other topics. These questions seemed to make people comfortable asking their own questions during my presentation.

Here are the ten questions I used.

About the Author 
Marilyn June Coffey 

Curious? Ask me to tell you about any of these topics.

1. My decision to become a writer.

2. My first publication.

3. My Saturday Evening Post publication.

4. Interviewing my dad when he was a senator.

5. Why I quit working for a liquor magazine in Denver.

6. Covering a murder for the Hastings Daily Tribune.

7. Getting in trouble working as a typist in San Diego.

8. Should I be a strikebreaker for the Portland newspaper?

9. Two weeks in New York City, already working as a tour guide.

10. Getting fired from Good Housekeeping.

11. Search for news reporting job in New York's major papers.

12. Helping Associated Press publish a book on Kennedy's death.

Or how I wrote any of my books: Marcella, a novel; Great Plains Patchwork, essays; Pricksongs, poetry; or Mail-Order Kid, biography.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What a Find!

Such a delight, reading Michael T. Keene's Abandoned: The Untold Story of Orphan Asylums! It is exactly the book I'd of given an eye tooth for in the 1990s when I was researching my own orphan train book, Mail-Order Kid. At that time, I knew that the Children's Aid Society and the Foundling weren't the only New York orphanages in existence, but where were the others? I could find out little about them, but Keene has done that footwork for all of us.

He delineates, in his plain style, the histories of eighteen orphanages, most in New York City or state. He focuses on people, on the wide variety of benefactors, visionaries, and saints who founded these asylums, and he adds tidbits about orphan train agents and riders. 

An interesting history it is, too, touching on such details as children being hung by their thumbs for punishment, the abduction and conversion of a young Jewish boy, the incineration of the Colored Orphan Asylum, and the accidental discovery of numerous bones of babies drowned by their unwed mothers. P. T. Barnum and Abraham Lincoln are bit players.

In short, Keene's Abandoned is a must-read for students, researchers, and descendants of orphan train riders. It reunites us with an important segment of that history.

-- Marilyn June Coffey

Monday, January 6, 2014

RESOLVED: I will not kill myself

RESOLVED: I will not kill myself
over this unexpected, gloomy turn of events.

At home, one mid-December afternoon, I heard something hissing. "What's that noise?"
"What noise?" Jack said, but he's three-quarters deaf so his response didn't count.
Maybe the furnace, but when I listened, I could hear both the furnace and this hissing noise. Same with the refrigerator. 
I walked all around the house, and that noise, which never crescendoed or decrescendoed, went everywhere with me. Anguished, I plugged my ears, but the noise did not stop. With growing horror, I realized the source of that noise was me. My ears were ringing.
I jumped on the Internet, stepped quickly from "ringing ears" to "tinnitus." Here's what I found.
Tinnitus (tin-EYE-tus) is the sensation of sound in one's ear when actual sound is not present. The sound can be various. It may ring, click, buzz, pulse, wheeze, hiss like a radiator, or chirp like a cricket. Mine drones like a chorus of cicadas, not loud, but persistent.
Most folks whose ears ring aren't bothered by it. They dismiss it in the same way one might dismiss traffic noise. But others, like me, get irritable or depressed.
What causes ears to ring? For most people, loud noise brings tinnitus on, but that's not true in my case. I'm not sure what caused it: a side effect of aspirin or lithium, my low thyroid, aging or vertigo (dizziness). But I haven't been dizzy for a couple of years, keeping my vertigo at bay with a weekly Epley maneuver. Aging seemed more likely. That didn't make me happy.
The really bad news: tinnitus has no cure.
When I realized I must live with my cicadas day after day (and night after night) for the rest of my life, I got a bit glum.
However, I took myself in hand, saying, you've got to learn to live with them. And I tried.  
I quickly realized that the more real noise in the room, the less my cicadas bothered me. Sometimes I forgot them altogether, if the radio played or if I talked to someone on the phone or if Jack declaimed about punctuation errors (or the marvels of the universe). Even cooking supper could take my mind off my beasties, but they intruded in what used to be "my" space whenever background noise got low or whenever I forgot to ignore them.
They really butted in when I tried to write or to sleep.
In my office, I turned my two sound masking machines on high and ran the heater, the way I do when Jack turns his DVD volume up. That helped.
At night, I kicked up the volume on my sleep music, currently an Arctic Wind white noise CD, and that helped, too.
But nothing shut them up.
Nights were the pits, especially when I woke surrounded by zilch but blackness and cicadas. Then I felt sorry for myself. "Oh, God!" I cried. "Give me one second, just one second of utter silence!" He remained silent but the cicadas droned on and on and on.
Tinnitus has no cure, but doctors came up with "maskers" that may disguise the sound. And with therapy which might retrain a person's brain, teaching it how to ignore the constant sound. That's good news.  
But not good news is the list of things a person can ingest that may worsen the cicadas' drone. "Eliminate consumption of brain-altering substances like caffeine" is the way they oust my cravings. Drink no coffee or tea and eat no chocolate? Good grief! 
Now should you have a cheery thought left after reading all this, please send it to me. I could use some rose-colored stimuli.