Midwestern Robot

Check out the life of UP copper miners in 1913

book cover

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fascinating glimpse into a little-known — at least to me — part of labor history, and Michigan history, and American history. If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell, this fictional riff on a 1913 miners’ strike in the UP will be right up your alley. They even mention Mary Barton at one point. In a similar way, this brings the struggles and triumphs of working people, and the incredibly unjust machinations of the moneyed and connected into sharp and personal focus.

It’s written in present tense, which at first distanced me. I felt a sense of cynicism and fatalism or something that almost turned me off…but I kept coming back to it, to read a few pages more, and a few pages more… and then the style paid off hugely. I felt inside of a complex and somehow even-handed narrative that was exactly right for the story and the characters. It left me wanting to learn more about the actual history and also read more of this writer.



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3 destinations for road trippers

Jasper and Nola in Jasper's car.
This is Jasper. He’s 99. We’ll meet him on Day 14.

This past fall, Dave and I took a road trip that has resulted in all sorts of feelings about where we’re living and how we’re living. To track my take, check out Trip Report on Literate Ape.com. Or gather tips for your own RV adventure by reading Dave’s posts on OdometerDave. And if you check out our YouTube channel, you can watch the action and tell us about your own experiences in the world of what-if.

10 things I’ve learned about working in storefront theatre in Chicago, in no particular order

It’s all about who’s in the room.
  1. Sometimes the storefront is a church gymnasium. Or a church basement. Or the upstairs of an old funeral home. So check the climate control situation before agreeing to the production. Is there heat in winter? AC in summer? If not, have a good long think about immersive theatre and how it should or should not relate to your play.
  2. Pay attention to every actor’s every question, even if they’re not directed at you. Even if they’re only mumbled. It’s not your job, but track them with the director and stage manager and whoever else, to make sure everything gets answered.
  3. It is your job.
  4. It is your job, but it might not be your place. You are the first emissary from the magic place where your play came from, but only the first. The play only arrives fully in this world after many people give it their talents, time, good will, and hard work.
  5. The most important thing is the people. When you’re lucky with cast and crew, you’re beyond blessed.
  6. Whenever possible, think long term.
  7. Don’t let long-term thinking blind you to what’s happening in the room right now.  
  8. Assume everyone is at least as sensitive as you are. Choose your words and your timing carefully.
  9. Bring treats.
  10. Write any program notes a few weeks in advance, so you have time to change them if something bizarre happens right at the end.

Possible personality origin story

Photo of Grandpa with Mom, Auntie Marie, and a lampshade
Venial sins, mortal sins, and lampshades.

I was eight or nine, and my mom was in the basement cutting my hair with her father watching. She would have been mid-40’s, younger than I am now. I always think of Grandpa as 95 but he was probably early 70s, still working part-time as a foot messenger for Cannonball. I know he was retired from the CTA by then, because I’d only been three or four when Mom put me on her lap for his last L ride, flashes of light speeding past and someone’s shoulders blocking the view ahead. 

On this day Grandpa was at the height of his bargain-gathering phase, hardy enough to haul multiple shopping bags full of discount socks and skates and egg timers from Montgomery Wards and the Marshall Fields bargain basement around the Loop and back to his and Grandma’s apartment on Oakdale. He’d then organize the stuff and take it on the bus to deliver to his kids every weekend, using the free pass given to retired CTA conductors and drivers.

One of the bargains was a home hair-cutting kit—scissors and shaver and blades organized in a hinged, red metal case with a rattling handle. It came from Sears Roebuck and Company, where Uncle George worked in the Fire Safety Department. Either he was keeping Sears safe from fire or servicing some kind of product customers could buy like an insurance policy, and it gave him an employee discount card that Grandpa borrowed on Wednesdays to combine with the senior discount.

Mom complained privately that her sister Marie always got the better stuff. Grandpa always went there first on Saturday mornings, taking the Austin bus south to Jackson, walking west to Marie’s, offering up the week’s haul of costume jewelry, small appliances, saucepans, and then stopping at ours on his way back north. Mom prided herself on never appearing to need anything in Grandpa’s bags but after he left she’d say, “Marie’s kids get skates that fit and we get a bunch that are too small or too big.” On some bargains, like the Brooke Shields clock or the hair-cutting kit, Grandpa got multiples so she and Marie got the exact same thing.

I sat on a high stool in the basement, pink plastic cape fastened around me and Mom trying to cut my hair. Grandpa stood watching. Mom muttered, “Damn this thing,” when she couldn’t get  my bangs even all the way across and had to keep making them shorter. Grandpa proclaimed, “It’s a bad carpenter who blames his own tools.” Mom retorted—a verb you could never apply to Marie, who accepted all things with a quiet, uncluttered smile, while retort should have Mom’s picture beside it in the dictionary, hand on hip and half-turning away, “That’s because a good carpenter doesn’t buy crappy tools.”

In that answer is possibly the kernel of my entire adult personality. Don’t ask, don’t appear to need, know that someone else is getting a better version of whatever it is than you are, and passive-aggressively blame the benefactor you really should, for all sorts of reasons, be thanking.

Of course Mom also got the fun of sparring with Grandpa, a man who silenced many including Marie with his unrelenting moral code: Life is an obstacle course comprised of venial sins and mortal sins, and the only safe activities are bible-quoting, bargain-hunting, and occasional practical jokes. Maybe Mom felt it was worth getting second-choice merchandise for the pleasure of reminding him she didn’t subscribe.

When she and Maria were still living at home Grandpa wouldn’t let them go out at night, some bible logic about wise virgins keeping their oil lamps full. One night Mom rebelled and got herself dressed up for the Riviera ballroom. When Grandpa asked what she thought she was doing she said, “I need an oil change.”

Marie used her Sears hair-cutting kit for years to cut all her children’s hair, plus Grandpa’s and Grandma’s. Mom’s lived in our linen closet unused for years, lid latched and metal handle rattling whenever you opened the closet door, until they moved and I never saw it again.