Mythmaking and the Veteran

This post was originally published on 11/16/2013

As Veteran’s Day approached, my daughter came home with a form to fill out about any canstockphoto6239811veterans she knew for the school display. She wanted to fill out the form about me and attach a picture on the bottom. I tried to encourage her to do a sheet on her great grandfather, who was a handsome man in his Navy dress uniform. I, however, have never liked pictures of myself. It’s not false modesty or some sort of facial dysmorphia, it’s just that unless it includes a cat scan of my brain activity, a list of my favorite books and pictures of my family, I feel like it’s a false representation of my personal values. And plus, I can never get my hair right.

My daughter’s friends had expressed disbelief that her mother had been in the Army, so I caved, sending along my doe-eyed 19 year old self dressed in Class As. Shortly after this, teachers and staff would comment, thanking me for my service. I find this to be extraordinarily awkward. I try not to make it more awkward by saying “it paid for college, it was peacetime, I spent most of it drunk or hungover and I left the military with a chip on my shoulder for mindless bureaucracy.” Not all service is equal.

The Army of today seems entirely different from the Army I joined almost 30 years ago. It was the end of the Cold War. I served in Military Intelligence as a Russian Linguist in what was then called West Germany. Let’s just say we spent a lot of time in the field and standing around outside motor pools chain smoking. I never found us to be a particularly impressive bunch. The work was hard, dull and rarely what we’d been trained for, unless being really, really smart inventory takers and mechanics was part of our occupational specialty.

I want to be honest, because I look at the tough, shitty work the military has to do today and it simply is not equal to the passive grind of my experience. Perhaps it is because I am getting dotty in my middle age years, but I shrug when I think about getting screamed at in basic or spending hours guarding nothing. The lives that were lost in surrounding units involved someone getting skewered by a nighttime antenna and civilians who died when a tank rolled over their car. And all this was second and third hand information. IEDs were never on our mental or literal landscape.

I met a lot of people in the Army, that in today’s terms would be described as being “on the spectrum” or with borderline personality disorders. And then they were armed. Since then I’ve discovered that any behemoth bureaucracy can serve as an umbrella for sociopaths and miscreants, and camouflage for untreated neurological conditions, so the military has no corner on that market. Many of them go on to be C-Level executives or servers at fast food franchises. Fortunately, most are unarmed.

It is true that I had some idealism, some sense of patriotism. It was the Reagan years, after all. But mostly, I grew up in poverty. No one talked to me about financial aid. No one in my family had graduated from college except for my grandfather. I needed a way out. The military provided me with that opportunity and for that, I will forever be grateful.

As to gratitude for service, the real ‘thank yous’ go to those service people who have been or are currently, on the ground, in the air and on the seas who have waited in restless boredom for the action that will inevitably come. You know who you are. I salute you and wish you a safe return home so that you can enjoy the awkwardness of stranger gratitude as well. You deserve it.


National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

Disabled American Veterans


Epiphanies at The Green Study

It’s been a productive week at The Green Study. Every surface is covered with books, files, and random Post-It notes. The white boards have hastily-scrawled notes and lists. After weeks of struggling with insomnia, I stopped struggling and sometimes I was up at 2:30 a.m. writing. It reset my brain to be up at odd times and ideas started pouring out. This post is a reflection of that – a little bit of everything.

It’s the Spirit of Intent

I spent a lot of time doing work for the League of Women Voters this week. Things are stepping up as we get closer to the midterms. I felt a strong desire to focus on these nonpartisan issues, even as I felt the dark cloud of partisan hackery above, preparing to rain down on all our heads.

canstockphoto13457331Some days it seems like too many ethically-challenged, bad people are gaining power and steam. I was lucky enough to come across the feed of writer, A.R. Moxon, who also has a blog. It was this thread that made me think about the spirit of each of the various tribes of people – what direction were they moving in? What future did they think awaited them? Who did they choose to follow? What was the intent, the outcome, the process? Who were they becoming in that process?

And what about the idea of bad people? Is it helpful? Politics is not a useful framework for defining our spirit. It is not Survivor or a team sport – there are no true winners if we cannot find common ground and serve the common good. And this is evident from all tribes – the fierceness, the words and memes meant to cut someone down to size. We are responsible for who we become as individuals. This week, I want to be like the women in my LWV chapter who have served the cause of voting rights for decades – dedicated, steadfast, deliberate, singular in purpose and thoughtful in words.

We get to choose which spirit we follow and embody.


Book Talk

canstockphoto13243997I was contacted by JKS Communications, publicists who work with a writer I admire. They’d seen the blog and wondered if they could send me some of the books they were representing, in case I’d like to talk about them here.  This never happened to me before, but let’s just say I did a giddy little dance around the house. I believe at one point I picked up a book, stared at it lovingly, and whirled about belting out “the hills are alive…with books”. When I babbled excitedly to my husband and daughter, they both glanced warily about the study, as precarious stacks of lit magazines and books were everywhere.

I told the representative that I don’t write reviews. I just write about what I read. I waited for a response. And she was perfectly lovely about it. This is all to say that I’m going to read a couple of books and likely will tell you about them, but for the sake of integrity, felt compelled to be up front about it. Plus, I’m still a little giddy.

34462968One book that I didn’t get gratis, was by a blogger who I have been following for a couple of years. Dave Astor blogs at Dave Astor on Literature and I’ve enjoyed his wonderful posts, rambling through literary connections and themes. He has a nifty little tome called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia. My only complaint was that each chapter left me wanting more. Maybe next volume, Dave.

My One Thing

There was a Billy Crystal movie in 1991 called City Slickers. In a scene between Curly, a crusty old cowboy and Crystal’s character, Mitch, he talks about the meaning of life.

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: That’s what you have to find out.

I was 24 at the time so I sort of, kind of, understood, but not really. The characters in the movie were on the cusp of being middle-aged. As I move from the middle to just straight-up aged, I’ve been struggling with a sense of purpose. It feels like it’s been this way always – likely an innate part of the human condition. The challenge is getting out of my own way, cutting through the imperfect perfectionism and procrastination. I have awkwardly begun to do what I want to do.

canstockphoto43567403Dirty dishes sat on the counter, my daughter ran out of jeans, my family foraged for their own meals, and the cats scratched their own bellies. I was writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote, consequences be damned. I submitted a short story to a lit mag and didn’t throw up from anxiety. I came up with a plan for November’s National Novel Writing Month. This time I’m writing a big sociopolitical novel that I’m very excited about. The world did not stop spinning on its axis because I ignored my chores. My child did not need bail money. My husband was able to find things. Nothing happened except for one thing.

Life got easier. All the things that I’d been wrestling with, from feeling sort of useless as a human to getting enough exercise to my exhaustion from heavy social interaction. It all faded away to the background. I had finally brought the right thing into focus. My one thing. I brushed away the fleeting thought that I’d wasted a lot of time getting here. If you’re a writer, I rationalized, it’s all research and material, no matter what you’ve been doing.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month and want a writing buddy, you can find me on the site at MMJayne.


Thank you to the Writers’ Studio, a group of lovely and talented people I joined in September. Having that space to read, write, listen, and talk about writing has encouraged me to embrace my one thing.

Thanks also to Amy, who has bravely embarked on a nonfiction collaboration with me. I love that our connection has found new ways to expand and grow.

And last, but definitely not least, thank you for reading, subscribing, or commenting. As I canstockphoto31378283close in on this blog’s seventh anniversary, I marvel at how much the online world has changed since I began, but that I still enjoy writing here. With so many things grabbing our attention, it becomes harder to find community and connections. Anything we do to improve that, from connecting with bloggers on the other side of the planet to giving each other an encouraging Like or Hell, Yeah in the comments – these things do make a difference.

A Snapshot of Auld Lang Syne

canstockphoto10299946I always find the time at the beginning of the new year to be particularly poignant. It’s around this time that I turn into an internet detective, in search of the people who were, for years at a time, part of my life and then no more. Where had they gone? Who had they become?

As a writer, I put it down to an inveterate curiosity about stories. How did their story turn out? Some of it is predictable. The roommate who allowed her cats to replicate into a plague has postings full of cats. The boyfriend with the boob fetish married a large-bosomed woman. But then there are the surprises – the compulsive gambler now crime investigator. The ladies’ man with his life partner, Steve.

You see the broad arc of their lives and wonder about one’s own trajectory. Have I changed much over the years? If someone looked at my life from the outside would they just nod knowingly and say yep, that’s no surprise. Or would they raise their eyebrows? Really? Wow, I never thought she’d___________.

What isn’t a surprise is how we age. We all seem to be leaning towards a pumpkin shape with lots of gray hair or none at all. I’d go to a Facebook page and it would seem like the person was posting youthful pictures of themselves, but they would be pictures of their children and grandchildren.

It leads me here, thinking about what truly brief lives we live and how many details are packed into those lives. Internet searches are reductive, distilling our lives down to one-dimensional facts and pictures. Whole lives cannot be reflected on a screen. If the devil is in the details, the devil is what makes us who we are.

canstockphoto42205858The picture of a glamorous couple smiling from a beach in Aruba cannot show that they met in a support group for grief or alcoholism. It cannot show the nights of tears or the lack of trust they had to get through in order to become that picture. It cannot show that he’s been cheating on her the last four months and that she has given up on being loved. It cannot show that on the second Tuesday next month, at 7:32p.m., on their way to visit his mother at the nursing home, they will be killed by a drunk driver.

It is only one detail, this picture, a single moment in their lives. It does not tell their story.

To look at a picture is only a short segment of thread in the rich tapestry that makes a human life. Our characters, our weird twitchy little habits, the things that give us pleasure and enrage us, what we think is funny or sexy or ridiculous, what makes us weep – take one human being, imagine those details and multiply it by 7 billion.

canstockphoto9029485Perhaps this is why I sit here, full up on visual images, but famished for stories. It is not enough to see the photo flip book of someone’s life, multiplying and aging and losing shape. I have the momentary urge to write, call, or email. What to say? Can you tell me what happened between Point A, when I knew you as the person who could drink me under the table, and Point B, when you posted a picture of a very large collection of paper-mâché elephants?

The take on this, like most perspectives, is a matter of choice. Let the melancholia wash over me for lost friends and connections. Or realize that what lies behind portends what is ahead. The continued shuffling through more of humanity, the lives we touch and are touched by. The writer’s mercenary safari for more material and character studies.

canstockphoto651525.jpgI’m of the school of thought that the past is past for a reason. That we grow and change and hopefully evolve beyond our initial capabilities. Looking back only serves to remind us of progress and of the many lessons we’ve learned on this journey, with its inevitable end. Perhaps all we can do is bow our heads in thanks to those who, for better and for worse, met us on the road.

A Brief Hiatus at The Green Study

The Green Study will return on June 15th, 2017.

canstockphoto1397569It’s down to the wire on getting my novel draft out to some amenable friends and family for reader input. Thanks to my skillful procrastination, this will be like writing my senior thesis in college, except that I won’t be running to someone’s office, reeking of all-night coffee, cigarettes and stale sweat, clutching a mangled stack of papers. Fortunately for my beta readers, I will only be repelling the postal carrier and she’s used to that.

Until my return in a couple of weeks, I leave you with the latest bits and bobs from my brain. I’m having a clear out so that I can wrestle my unwieldy novel into compliance.


canstockphoto5811625On a holiday to honor and memorialize the war dead, you can also get futons 20% off. I tend to agree with some veterans that Memorial Day should never have been moved in the 1960s to create a three-day holiday weekend. I associate the smell of barbecue with the day, more than the stench of war. I say move it back to May 30th and create a three day voting weekend during a warmer time of year. Let’s make voting a bigger deal, in order to truly honor those who have fallen.


Yesterday, I went off to do my favorite thing – peruse a used bookstore. It’s a couple of miles away and I have never left without a stack of books. Half-Price Books opened at the end of a little strip mall ten years ago when I first left a full-time job and it became my bit of escapism.

canstockphoto20059048My daughter and I spent many hours wandering about the bookstore, always making discoveries. She’d find the latest in a series she was reading and I’d discover a collection of stories from a favorite writer. It was the thrill of the hunt, the surprise discoveries on a random table that made it a pleasure. The more jumbled a bookstore, the happier I am.

Yesterday, I stood in front of an empty storefront, a realtor’s sign taped up haphazardly. I could not explain the feeling of sadness that came over me. A sense of loss. My daughter grew up with this store, toddling about the picture and activity books until her teenage slump into the young adult novel section. I’d grown up here too, moving from parenting advice books to gardening tomes to the last few years of writing books.

Enough has been written about the demise of brick-and-mortar stores and the death of bookstores. For me, this feels personal. I was thinking about the fact that if I ever made any decent money, I’d open a used bookstore in my area. Bookstores tell me about the culture of a community. My community just opened a shooting range, Dunkin’ Donuts and has five drugstores within a 5 mile radius. I’m a stranger in a strange land.


canstockphoto6557234It’s raining this morning again. The windows are open and Mr. Cardinal is making a racket from the fence, letting all know far and wide that this patch is his. My husband and daughter are asleep. The cats have resumed napping after breakfast and the coffee is still fresh. A moment of gratitude to start the day. And then back to writing.

Thank you to readers, old and new, for reading, liking and/or commenting on posts at The Green Study.

You make blogging a genuine pleasure!

2016: A Few of My Favorite Things, Part 2

I was trying a little exercise in gratitude with these posts, in an attempt to pull 2016 out of the crapper. Then I came down with a head cold. Welcome to crabby gratitude. Part 1 is here.

The Teacher Becomes a Student

Last month, I started tutoring high school English learners. I’ve not done it before and I’m still figuring out how to be useful. But it lit a spark. Over the years, I’ve studied French, Spanish, German canstockphoto7037830and served as a Russian linguist in the Army. I was stationed in Germany for a couple of years. I learned a little Tagalog from an elderly man who worked in the hotel laundry with me while in college. I picked up some Arabic from an Egyptian friend with whom I used to ride the bus downtown to work. My husband has attempted over the years, to teach me the Swedish his father taught him.

I have bookshelves filled with dictionaries, etymology textbooks and word histories. In short, I love language – any language. My latest challenge is learning some Somali. The Twin Cities has the highest Somali population in North America, so I have opportunities to practice. Proficiency is rarely my goal, but I love the reaction when someone hears their language – even the most botched effort can make them smile.

I get on my high horse about foreign languages, because interest in learning them speaks less of aptitude or proficiency and more to curiosity. In a time when nationalism is rearing its ugly head, curiosity is the antidote. Curiosity about others, their cultures and their languages, leads to empathy and connection – and to an environment where isolationism and bigotry cannot flourish.

Devotion, Passion’s Quieter Friend

canstockphoto7136037This year, I’ve attended more live music performances than I have in the last decade, thanks to my daughter. She’s playing in four orchestras, including one that plays rock music by ear. She’s begun to write her own music, laying down piano, glockenspiel, ukulele, viola and violin tracks, using our living room as a makeshift studio.

You hear about people having a passion for something from when they’re very young. I never knew what that looked like or thought about how I’d parent should one show up in my living room. I was never like that, bouncing from hobby to the next great idea with reckless abandon. Which is why I am almost 50 with no career, but an abundance of interests.

It seems weird to have a child who never has to be told to practice, but does have to be told to put her mute on at 7am. Her blissful faraway look, cheek pressed against instrument, bow drifting back and forth – it does something to my heart to watch her.

It has made me think as well. Is it true that I have no passions, no driving need to excel at any one thing, no commitment? When I look back, I’ve always done four things in my life: read books, played music, wrote incessantly, and tried to learn foreign languages.

canstockphoto10265804Reading is a series of endless gateways through which one can walk. One thing always leads to the next. There is no end to the knowledge or the hidden gardens one can stumble upon. Reading was also a lifeline for me. Introverted, growing up in a dysfunctional home, it was my escape and a promise that there was a better life out there. I’ve never regarded it as a passion, but as a necessity.

I’ve always written, but have never been a writer by profession. From silly poems and plays in grade school, to writing for and editing my school paper. I went on to jobs where I found places to write mundane departmental newsletters, manuals and websites. It doesn’t feel like a passion. It feels like second nature. Perhaps I simply take it for granted.

canstockphoto25554786For 40+ years, I’ve played the flute. I taught lessons to help with college expenses and get my instrument out whenever nostalgia hits me. I am good at reading music and have the discipline of practice, but I do not love playing as much as I love listening. It is simply the history of self I carry along.

Passion is often described as a devotion. I like that quieter definition, because it makes it easier to name what one is passionate about.  As I look at my history, what emerges is a devotion to learning and to expression. It’s something to think about going into the new year – what are you devoted to and what are you doing to honor those devotions?

Last, but Not Least, Favorite Things

It turns out that my favorite things of the last year were not things at all, but people.

I’ve spent most of the year somewhat depressed – functional, but muted. Part of it was the psychological impact of the negative political discourse. The other part was that I was feeling pretty damned useless as a human being. I dropped out of sight. I took a lot of long walks by myself. I cussed a lot more. I kept grasping around me for something to take hold of and to believe in.

On a positive note, I was not recruited by a cult.

My family allows me the space to be – a small miracle, considering how much time I need to be alone. And when we’re together, we enjoy being there. My friends are much like the tides, drifting closer and farther away, depending where we are each at in our lives. We’ve gotten good at letting each other off the hook. Guilt-free friendships are a gift. Thank you AB, EB, JL, KS, MS, and SW. Thanks for being there (and not there) for me.

Lastly, to the bloggers, readers and commenters here at The Green Study, thank you. I’ve enjoyed the many conversations over the last year and look forward to the year ahead. I’ve met some of my favorite people in blogland and look forward to continuing and new friendships.

Best wishes to you all in 2017!MichelleSig copy

The Green Study’s “Positively Happy Nice Story” Contest: Honorable Mention

Today’s post wraps up the contest entries. Thank you to all the people who added a little positivity to The Green Study in the month of October!

In November, I know many people will disappear into the deep hole of NaNoWriMo. While I won’t be participating this year, as I have a work-in-progress, I’ll be furiously writing away, word counts be damned. Take a breather and stop by here for some encouragement, a laugh or just a sympathetic, weary nod of agreement. I’ll be posting throughout the month, taking breathers from the novel. Best wishes to you all!

canstockphoto14284461Last, but not least, is an Honorable Mention post by Alison at Adventures in Wonderland, whose entry “Sometimes We Take For Granted Those Who Are Most Important To Us” is self-explanatory.

Alison is carrying on her nomadic journeys, so she received an e-postcard from Minnesota and $25 was donated to the Red Cross on her behalf.

Sometimes We Take For Granted Those Who Are Most Important To Us

By Alison at Adventures in Wonderland

This morning I said to my husband Don:

Michelle at The Green Study is having a story contest. She wants a 400 to 800-word piece about something positive, and I can’t think of a single thing to write about. It’s been sitting with me for a week and I can’t think of anything.

I’m almost always positive. I’m one of those annoying Pollyanna types who sees the good in everything, and I couldn’t think of anything to write about.

He looked at me and said: Write about me! With a big grin on his face.

At first I was bewildered, and didn’t know how to react, or how to let him down kindly. It didn’t seem to remotely fit the required theme. Don was still grinning.

canstockphoto31001917Then I read out loud the requirements: a positively happy nice incident, an admirable person in your life, unwitting luck or fortunate consequences. Bingo! He fulfills all the categories – for me he is a continuous positively happy nice incident, being with him is the biggest piece of unwitting luck or fortunate consequences to ever happen to me, and I admire him enormously. Here’s why:

Don is a kind man. It’s not that he never gets upset with others but his basic nature is one of kindness. He is sensitive to his environment and to others. He mostly wants to feel good and to have others feel good. He questions his place in the world but at the same time is one of the wisest people I know. He always goes to the heart of the matter, looking for deeper meaning than the waves on the surface. He is not afraid to look with open eyes into his own depths and to clear what needs to be cleared. He is not afraid to feel his feelings. He is always pursuing authenticity.

He is steady and organized and takes care of business. He never puts things off, but sees to what needs to be done in a better than timely manner. I’m a procrastinator, but not Don. He’s always on top of everything and helps me to be as well.

My Don is a good good man who takes care of me, but at the same time allows me to be canstockphoto7166839myself. He makes few demands. He’s committed to clear communication and authenticity, and he chooses love. Even in the face of discord he chooses love. He chooses the path of courage to face the truth, courage to be seen no matter how shameful it may be, courage to stand his ground in things that matter to him. He says clearly what he wants and needs. At the same time he can be flexible, bending like the willow, his roots firmly planted, but branches flying free when the situation demands it. He’s willing to admit when he’s been wrong.

He has many qualities I admire, but I think above all I admire his commitment to the truth. I don’t mean the scientific truth, I mean his own deeply felt truth – the truth in his heart and soul and body about what’s right or not for him, and his quiet determination to live by that.

He’s intelligent and thoughtful, and a good listener even if I sometimes have to start with: pay attention to me now.

Plus he’s funny. When I wonder out loud from time to time how on earth he puts up with me he says it’s because he’s a living saint.

So I read to him what I’ve written. Later we’re out for a walk and start talking about it. He says he never knew I thought that way about him. I guess I need to be more communicative. Anyway, I say: I constantly admire and appreciate and enjoy you. And you let me!

To which he replied: It’s my best trick.

So I get to spend my days with the person I admire the most, and I didn’t even think to write about him. Sometimes we take for granted those who are most important to us.

Congratulations Alison!

Here’s an Adventures in Wonderland sampler:

Do You Want a Home or Do You Want a Life?

The Nile Forever New and Old – Cruising from Aswan to Luxor

Endless Beauty: The Glory of New Zealand