If you haven’t been there lately, that may sound pretty crazy. There’s been no shortage of reporting on Detroit’s hard times. But I grew up near “the D” and as a kid, a trip to Detroit meant something special–a Detroit Tigers game or a speedboat race on the Detroit River with my dad, shopping at Hudson’s with my mom, Broadway shows at the Fisher Theater, field trips to the Detroit Institute of Arts, all accompanied by the rhythm of Motown.
I live in Minnesota now, but returned to the city last week and once again felt how special it is–its history, it’s people, and a general vibe of grit and coolness found in few other places. Best of all, many of the things from my memory are still there, though sometimes in altered form.
The Tigers have moved to Comerica Park.
Partly because of those qualities, the city is making a huge comeback. I was there for five days and could have stayed longer, partly enjoying the memories, partly seeing what’s vital and new, and feeling nostalgia with a positive spin.
It’s not easy to find Julie Schumacher. Like the setting of her book, Dear Committee Members, winner of the James Thurber Prize for Humor, her office in the English Department at the University of Minnesota seems exiled to a warren of rooms deep in the bowels of Lind Hall on the East Bank campus. Go downstairs, through some doors, down a hall, through the door with the arrow on it and its on the right somewhere at the end of the hall. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back.
Also, like her fictional protagonist, Jay Fitger, she’s a creative writing professor and pens scores of letters of reference for students who are applying for jobs and grad school. Dear Committee Members consists solely of such letters in which the arrogant and curmudgeonly Fitger reveals more about himself than his students.
Peppered with a hilariously snooty vocabulary (with phrases like “floculent curds”), his letters perpetually digress to lament his department’s lack of status in the University, the ongoing building repairs and the trials of having an office next to the bathroom. “…we are alternately frozen and nearly smoked, via pestilent fumes, out of our building,” says Fitger. “Between the construction dust and the radiators emitting erratic bursts of steam heat, the intrepid faculty members who have remained in their offices over the winter break are humid with sweat and dusted with ash and resemble two-legged cutlets dredged in flour.” He bemoans the lack of respect for the liberal arts and the struggle of dealing with office technology—topics dear to Schumacher’s heart. Clearly, she follows the old adage “write what you know.”
Yet, when you do arrive at her office, it’s easy to see that Julie Schumacher is no Jay Fitger. She’s downright pleasant, enjoys her colleagues and proudly shows off her former students’ published novels. She swears her letters of reference never wander off, Fitger-like, into completely inappropriate discussions of sexual indiscretions around the department. Finally, unlike poor Jay, her work regularly receives recognition.
She was first woman to win the Thurber Prize in its 18-year history.The award is named for James Thurber, the author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the creator of numerous New Yorker magazine cover cartoons and one of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century. Previous Thurber Prize winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris and Calvin Trillin.
So many women have written funny books—Tina Fey, Nora Ephron and Betty White to name a few—it’s surprising that a woman hasn’t won the Thurber prize before now. See my previous post about James Thurber. That changed last year when all three of the finalists were women including New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast for her memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Annabelle Gurwitch for I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge.
As the first woman to win, Schumacher recognizes the irony that her lead character is a man. “It never occurred to me to make him a female,” she says. “This character has certain expectations of power, a big ego and he’s crushed when things don’t turn out professionally and romantically. It had to be a guy.”
Schumacher came to this place of distinction through long experience and serious practice of her craft. She grew up in Delaware, graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University with an MFA in fiction. She joined the University of Minnesota faculty after teaching as an adjunct at several Minnesota colleges in an effort to “keep an oar in the water” while raising her two daughters. Along the way she published books for young readers, a short story collection, and a critically acclaimed first novel, The Body of Water.
Of Dear Committee Members she says, “I didn’t start out to write a funny book. Actually, it’s a really a sad book. For Jay, things haven’t turned out like he expected, he’s besieged and disappointed. He’s a complicated character. I fell in love with him.”
Her sophisticated style of humor eschews the raunchy (no f-bombs here) in favor of writing that observes the funny in everyday life and in human nature. “The trick,” she says, “is to push the discomfort of a character’s behavior just to the edge, but not too far.” That makes it perfect for an award named after James Thurber. “Humor, he said, is “a kind of emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect.”
Schumacher says life today requires humor. “Its a release, a catharsis.” Through her alter ego, Jay Fitger, humor also gives Schumacher a means of serious social commentary. He says, “…there are other faculty here on campus who are not disposed to see notable scholarship ignored; and let it be known that, in the darkened, blood-strewn caverns of our offices, we are hewing our textbooks and keyboards into spears.”
While I’m on the topic of travel photography….Portraits–don’t even get me going on what a challenge I have getting good portraits of people I meet while traveling. Yet, there’s nothing more interesting than faces. Portraits are worth the effort because photography lacks a greater sense of place without them. Sure there are beautiful landscapes, artistic still lifes—food!—and some fun shots of people from a distance but those close-up photos of faces are what really tell a story and give an impression of the folks who inhabit any place—from Minneapolis to Morocco.
I’m kind of chicken. It’s hard to get right up close to people you don’t know, but that’s what it takes for a good portrait. Up close, the subject may become more stiff and self-conscious so sometimes I take the photo from a distance, maybe when they’re not looking, and just crop the heck out of it later. If I’m lucky it won’t be blurry. Ultimately, it just takes a few extra seconds–and a little bravery–to get a better shot.
Also, there’s the etiquette and ethics of portraiture. I’m getting better, but it’s a challenge to ask people that may not speak my language if I can take their picture. Some people just hate to have their picture taken, sometimes for religious reasons. Often, the more exotic looking (or sometimes the more downtrodden looking) the person, the more dramatic the photo. Am I taking advantage of them or invading their privacy? In Morocco, I was told not to pay children for their pictures because it encourages them to forego school for money-making photo opps.
Happy schoolgirls in Guatemala.
This young man was slightly suspicious of the photographer at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis
I like taking pictures of people through windows or sculptures.
One way I’ve found to get good portraits is to buy something the person is selling or simply put a few coins in a street entertainer’s music case. And, if my potential photo subject is in business, like a bartender or shopkeeper, they’re usually happy to cooperate.
When all else fails, animals are usually very eager to pose for a portrait, no questions asked.
I’ve been traveling a lot lately and have many stories and pictures to share since I last posted. I’ve had adventures in quite varied places including the backroads of Missouri on the Katy Bike Trail, around central Italy, and a few spots right here in Minneapolis (more on those soon). Every time I return from a trip, I pour over my photos, delete the junk, crop and perfect the good pics and relive my experiences in the process.
I use these photos in my blog and sell them as part of article packages or slide shows, but I take pictures on the fly, more like a tourist than a professional photographer who camps out for several days to get the best light. I’m too small to lug all that equipment–several cameras, lenses and a tripod and more. Plus, I’d rather pay attention to the experience than gadgetry.
That’s why I try to keep a few basic ideas in mind to elevate my photos several notches above “snapshot.” Sherry Ott, a photographer and travel writer who as far as I can tell is completely nomadic, which fascinates me, just posted a great summary of what to keep in mind while taking pictures as a traveler. On her blog, Ottsworld, she says, it’s not about the equipment, its about composition. In fact, many of the travel writers I know take great pictures with their iPhones, though I have to say a good digital SLR makes a difference.
I’m sharing a link from her blog, my fellow travelers, for your own use and inspiration: How to Take Better Vacation Pictures. No matter what your skill level, her tips are a great reminder that it just takes a little extra thought to compose more satisfying photos.
And please share any tips you have with the rest of us by commenting here.
With blooms busting’ out all over, this botanical garden is beautiful from the start. Then add a butterfly garden with installations of Chihuly Glass. The curving, colorful forms of glass serve to draw attention to the curves and colors of nature that surround them, heightening our awareness of nature’s amazing artistry.
Cartoons and funny articles in a style that is spare and gentle.
James Thurber was one of the most beloved humorists of the last century and his cartoons were regularly featured in The New Yorker for over 30 years. I recently visited his boyhood home in Columbus, Ohio, where the stories about Thurber’s childhood explained a lot about his gentle and quirky humor, particularly the tales about his delightfully cooky mother and his love of dogs.
Thurber’s drawings are spare, simple black lines and experts speculate that it may be due in part to an eye injury he received as a child. If your knowledge of Thurber’s work is limited to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and its recent movie incarnation, I suggest reading The Thurber Carnival, a collection of his short stories and drawings for a better look at the author/illustrator. For example, one of my favorite of Thurber’s canine characters is Muggs, in “The Dog That Bit People.” Muggs, a really crabby Airedale, was one of the family dogs (Thurber owned 53 during his life). Muggs bit everyone except Mrs. Thurber who always defended him. Thurber writes, “Mother used to send a box of candy every Christmas to the people the Airedale bit. The list finally contained forty or more names.” Like most authors’ homes, Thurber’s house offers a view of life in a slower, though with Muggs around, not necessarily a safer era.
Apart from the stories and drawings, one of Thurber’s most important legacies is the Thurber Prize for American Humor that is now awarded in his name from the non-profit that runs the house and the many Thurber House programs for writers. Winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris,Calvin Trillin and most recently Minnesotan Julie Schumaker for her hilarious book Dear Committee Members. See my article in the Minnesota Women’s Press on Julie Schumacher.
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.