Ty Segall's album "Manipulator" came out Aug. 25. 

Ty Segall, a rock musician I learned about recently, draws on the garage rock, psychedelic, punk and glam rock genres to create an addictive sound.

His newest album, "Manipulator," was released in August. Check out the song below, which is Track 2 on the album.

"Tall Man, Skinny Lady," by Ty Segall

Tall man and the skinny lady
I need to row
Come over here, I think you can make
Try to cure my soul
Tall man and the skinny lady
I need to row
Come over here, I think you can make
Try to cure my soul
Over here, I need your love baby
I need to run

The song "Tall Man, Skinny Lady" probably won't make rock history for the profundity of its lyrics. In fact, I'm not entirely sure those are the right lyrics, as the only transcription I could find online had question marks after just about every line. And I couldn't understand the words myself. Ha!

For this song, though, does it matter? I found myself drawn into the band's world the second I started listening. Segall stands lost in his own world at the microphone, flaunting his long, Cobain-esque locks.

Hear's what I heard and saw in the percussion underpinning the song: A dealer shuffling a deck of cards. The roll of the dice. Leopard print-clad women (and men) walking past the craps table. Sequins. Rolex watches.

The song is a soundtrack for a night in Vegas.

What do you hear?

If you hear and see a different world lurking in the bass line, skipping across the drums or snaking from his vocal cords, I'd love to read about it. Leave me a comment below or over at my Facebook Community page.
(Stock photo: Free images)

Have you ever had a dream so exhausting you felt physically sore when you woke up?

Wednesday morning before I awoke, I was trapped in a nightmare that had no bottom, no sides and no big, red “EXIT” sign.

Three monsters

I dreamt I was trying to get home. I came upon three monsters dressed in human form. They looked somewhat like stretched Barbie dolls with blue hair and Daisy Dukes. By the end of the dream, they had changed into young, professional Ken dolls.

Their game was simple on the surface. I met them guarding a pile of leaves in a rural driveway, and before they would let me pass, I had to follow their rules in a game they had created.

At first, it was a scavenger hunt. Collect a toy rabbit, a charm from a charm bracelet, a box of Krispy Kremes, a roll of toilet paper and some other odds and ends, then give them to us, and we’ll let you go, they said.

But once I had done that, they introduced stealing to the game. They were allowed to filch pieces here and there from my collection, so never at any point was I able to finish gathering the items on the list.

A quick side trip

[The dream suddenly veered off into a short detour. I found myself chauffeuring a group of 10 kids around the back roads in a five-seater car, necessitating tying a couple of them on the back of the vehicle and praying no cops would tail us until I could get them safely back to their house.] 

Up a hill, down a hill

The scavenger hunt was fruitless. Eventually, it became clear I wasn’t on a scavenger hunt at all. I was on a road with a golden retriever, wearing running clothes and trying to run up a hill. Every time I reached the crest of the hill, the three monsters were at the top and would chase me back down the way I just came.

In a parking garage 

In the next scene, I was trapped in a parking garage stairwell with several levels. The monsters’ instructions were to take a cord of three strands, made up of a long garden hose, a broom and a dustpan, and wind them up the stairway until I got to the top, racing alongside their cords of three strands, and whoever had the cord that made it to the top first would be set free.

The problem was, the three monsters waited at the bottom with pruning shears, and every time I was nearly at the top level, they would cut my cord and I’d go falling back down to the bottom. They were waiting there with new supplies for me, and I’d have to start the contest over again.

Unfortunately, I never learned from their tricks. I was still trapped in the stairwell when I woke up, my whole body drained and sore from fighting the monsters in my sleep.

I’ve felt a lot like this in real life at times. Fighting the same demons over and over, using the same tactics and emerging with the same frustrating results.

I'm turning over a new leaf. I'm fighting with new strategies.

Willing to share?

Isn’t it stunning and fascinating how the subconscious works through our fears and frustrations by weaving fictions while we’re asleep? I’d love to hear about some of your crazy dreams, if you’re willing to share. Leave me a comment below or over at my Facebook Community page.
ArtPrize is here once again, which means three square miles of the city of Grand Rapids have been transformed into an art gallery for works of every kind imaginable: sculptures, paintings, performance art, mixed media installations, film, photography, art in nature and art indoors — you name it, and it's competing for a piece of the contest's $560,000 purse.

What I love about ArtPrize is that, for 19 days, and free of charge, I'm invited to meet with souls from across the world. In viewing their works, I get to connect with a part of what makes them human: their creativity.

Sure, I could find those connections in galleries or museums. But for the span of two weeks in the heart of my own city, the art is inescapable. It practically comes to me.

The question I get to ask myself anew each year is, "What speaks to me this year? This week? In this moment?" And during each visit to ArtPrize, I answer that question differently.

This year, I've noticed myself being drawn to works that illustrate the fleeting nature of life and the frailty of humanity.

That which is fleeting

"The Shed Is on Fire," by Katrin Albrecht (Photo: Rachel E. Watson)

My photograph above doesn't suffice to capture "The Shed Is on Fire." The sculpture, which is on display at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, depicts the shell of a structure, an imaginative portrait of the remains of a fire. The "bricks" are made of old clothes, cast-offs donated to the artist's project by friends and family members, and the bricks appear to be melting as if from intense heat. 

This work made me think about how we accumulate so many things — clothes included — that we think will add value to our lives, but when they go up in flames, do we miss them? Not in the same way we miss the people we've lost. Those are the relationships we really need to treasure, enjoying each moment, investing in the currency of memories, building a life on joy and love, rather than on a collection of inanimate, soulless objects.

"Peralux," by NewD Media 

"Peralux," by NewD Media, aka Detroit-based duo Gabriel Hall and Daniel Land, is a time-based, visual installation that features animation projected onto sculpture inside a room on the fifth floor of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts

The projected video takes viewers through a series of scenes. One made me feel I was flying through outer space. In another, I felt like I was swimming with the fish in the ocean. In another, I felt like I'd stepped into a scene from the movie "The Fifth Element" — all of those hot, orange tones colliding and filling up my senses. And in some scenes, I felt like I was in a game of laser tag, and my friends could be about to jump out from behind a corner and "tag" me at any second.

The artists managed to take me on several journeys within the span of probably two minutes or less. I left the "theater" space with a smile on my face, feeling like I'd just witnessed something I'll always treasure. Something that's here for ArtPrize but will be gone thereafter.

That which is frail

"Feather Child 1," by Lucy Glendinning (Photo: Rachel E. Watson)

This sculpture on display at Meijer Gardens is of a small child at rest. Instead of skin made of flesh, the child's body is covered with feathers. I found this touching, delicate and tender. I thought of how a mother hen protects her chicks by gathering them under her feathery wings. 

In her artist's statement, sculptor Lucy Glendinning references Greek mythology, the story of Icarus, who created wings fastened with wax to escape from Crete, but flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he fell to the sea and drowned.

The connection to a story meant to illustrate hubris, and the fact that the artist chose to depict a small and innocent child, reminds me that one of the common threads to be found throughout all humanity, whether child or adult, is that we are vulnerable. Mortal. "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down."

This is one photograph in a series of self-portraits called "Home Sweet Home,"
by Danielle Owensby. It bears this caption: "This room was going to be my bedroom,
once the house was finished. Ten years after moving out, it's still a construction site."

"Home Sweet Home," on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, was arresting. I found it incredible that the artist was able to be so vulnerable, depicting scenes that are painful, revealing and evocative, both for her — and I'm sure her parents — and for the viewers. 

The series is visual memoir. I saw her posed in various attitudes in her childhood home, dressed in clothes like she would have worn as a child, but which now are incongruous with her size and age.

For me, the bedroom scene I've included above was the saddest photo of them all. That her room was never finished lingers deep in her psyche. Putting myself in her shoes, I can imagine the feelings I would have felt: "Will this ever be 'home'?" "Where do I truly belong?" "Will I always be waiting?"

The human mind is a powerful organ, but also very frail.

Share your favorite entries

Have you been to see any ArtPrize exhibits this year? If so, I'd love to hear from you about what themes you've been noticing and connecting with, or maybe just share a little about your favorite entry so far. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook Community page.
Did you ever wonder what kind of music the Bee Gees were making before disco? I was born in the '80s, so I wasn't around for disco, and I definitely wasn't around for the birth of rock 'n' roll.

But thanks to the Internet, and to my husband's wide-ranging tastes, I get introduced to a lot of music I might not otherwise have listened to, both from the past and present.

Today, Adam played me a song by the Bee Gees that I never would have guessed they'd recorded, because I've only ever heard their mega-famous disco hits.

You know, "Stayin' Alive," "More Than a Woman," "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," etc.

But here's one that predates all that:

"Jumbo" (1968), by the Bee Gees:

Jumbo said to say goodnight
See you in the morning
Please don't lose your appetite
He knows who is yawning

Tomorrow you can climb a mountain
Sail a sailboat through a fountain

Jumbo said to say goodnight
He's a friend of yours

Play no games, he'd say to me
When the light is gone
He is right, he'd say to me
We know who is wrong

So please don't make no hesitation
There will be no recreation

Jumbo said to say goodnight
He's a friend of yours

Listen, you can chew it
If it's loud enough you hear it
'Cos it's narrow as a sparrow
And it shoots a bow and arrow
Through a top that's made with powder

With a gun it's even louder
And it's shatterin' to hear
You mustn't listen with your ear
But it gets to you

(Yes, yes, yes)
It gets to you
(Yes, yes, yes)
(Yes, yes, yes)
(Yes, yes, yes)

To what other bands would you compare that sound?
"Why haven't they come for us yet?" she asked herself, pacing between the bathroom, the hallway and the study. The shoes by the back door were scattered and caked with mud. She barely noticed.

The door to the kitchen was closed. She had tried knocking, repeatedly, to no avail.

The door to the kitchen. (Photo: Rachel E. Watson)

Back in the study, her companion perched warily beside a stack of books and papers, unsorted on the desk.

Rain beat against the roof and trickled down the window panes overlooking the neighbors' driveway. This morning, even a clear view into their kitchen offered no comfort.

Jaguar had plenty of time to think. And right about now, she was beginning to believe the door would never open.

"It's 9 a.m. This is highly unusual," Jaguar said to herself as she settled onto her bed to lick her fur. Her coat was glistening today because she'd had so much time to clean it, trapped in the back half of the house while the humans did ... well, whatever it is humans do when they're not feeding cats.

She realized she'd already bathed nine times, and so began pacing again, bathroom to hallway to study.

"You're making me nervous," Sinatra called out from atop the desk. "Why don't you sit down?"

"Must watch the door," Jaguar growled. She continued pacing.

Sinatra turned her attention to the window, watching a neighbor cross the street in rain boots and a slicker.

In the master bedroom, far away on the other side of the door, an alarm sounded on the nightstand, barely audible underneath a tall pile of spent tissues, black licorice throat lozenges and store-brand NyQuil gel caps.

The black digital numbers on an orange-yellow background read 9:35 a.m.

"Ughhhh, the cats haven't eaten breakfast yet," one human moaned to the other. "Unless you fed them earlier. Did you?"

"I don't think so. I'm pretty sure I didn't," the other said.

The pair looked frightful: greasy scalps, matted hair, tangled bedclothes and red, puffy eyes.

No matter. The rulers of the show were unhappy, and it was time to set their world aright.

"Ping! Ping! Piiinnng!" The food tumbled from the scoop in the human's hand to the small metal bowl on the place mat in the study.

Jaguar was torn between relief at being freed from the back of the house and that gnawing hunger in the pit of her stomach. She ate several mouthfuls, then started to leave, but changed her mind and came back.

"I can always go explore later," she thought to herself. She took another bite.
I've been waiting excitedly all week to share these poems with you, readers, and tell you just why they mean so much to me.

They were introduced to me in various literature classes in college — the place I learned to truly appreciate poetry. Before that, I'd read bits of poetry here and there, but the discussions on a higher level in college, with professors adept at literary criticism, opened a new world of words to me.

Without further ado, here are the three short poems I love:

Is there anything more melancholy and beautiful than fog? (Photo: Free images)

"Fog," by Carl Sandburg, 1916

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

I love the metaphor of fog being like a cat, coming to observe. It's in the city, but not really of the city. It springs up seemingly out of nowhere. It makes no sound and can scarcely be felt. But its presence is by turns eerie, soothing, mysterious, aloof or comforting.

Cats are just like that. They steal your heart and win your cautious respect.

"So sweet and so cold." (Photo: Free images)

"This Is Just To Say," by William Carlos Williams, 1934

I have eaten 
the plums 
that were in 
the icebox 

and which 
you were probably 
for breakfast 

Forgive me 
they were delicious 
so sweet 
and so cold

This poem is written like an apology note on the kitchen counter. It tickles my funny bone. It makes me think of how sometimes, the food being saved for a special occasion — whatever it may be — is more tempting than the food that's freely available. We're all human; we all feel the pull of forbidden fruit.

Reading this poem made you hungry for plums, didn't it? You weren't even thinking about them until I shared this, were you?

The innocence of a child. (Photo: Free images)

My Papa's Waltz, by Theodore Roethke, 1942

The whiskey on your breath 
Could make a small boy dizzy; 
But I hung on like death: 
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans 
Slid from the kitchen shelf; 
My mother’s countenance 
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist 
Was battered on one knuckle; 
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head 
With a palm caked hard by dirt, 
Then waltzed me off to bed 
Still clinging to your shirt.

This poem, admittedly, is very bittersweet. I remember being disappointed and angry after I first read it — angry that the poet would celebrate drunkenness in verse. Alcoholism isn't something to laud, my college self said. 

But eventually, I peeled back the layers and found beauty underneath. The more I've thought about it over the years, the more I have come to realize Roethke did what artists the world over strive to do: Make something honest and beautiful out of something broken.

The poem illustrates that troubled people show love in troubling ways. It's love that's as imperfect as love always will be this side of heaven.

I haven't read much about Roethke beyond his Wikipedia page, but I'm willing to bet the poem is autobiographical. I'm thankful he took his pain and spun a refrain. (Ha! See, I'm a poet, too. ;)

Share your favorite poem

Can you think of a poem that has affected you deeply? I'd love to hear about it. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook Community page.
It's time to get serious about this blog. (Photo: Free images)

I learned a thing or two about blogging during a workshop at Jot Writers' Conference last weekend. It's time to put those ideas into practice.

My main takeaway from the workshop was that, in order to find success  that is, to gain and retain readers  a blogger should be consistent in how often s/he posts, and should have a clear mission, i.e., a theme, for the blog.

With that in mind, I'd like to articulate my plan for this space going forward. This is my commitment to you, my readers:
  1. I will update the blog three times per week: Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
  2. I will write about what I know and what I like. I've done a thorough content audit of my past posts, and I'm confident the structure I have in mind will work well with my areas of interest and expertise. If you like what I like, then this will be the blog for you.
With those two goals in mind, here are the themes to which I'll stick on each of the three days I'll post:

Groovy Tuesday

Music is one of my top passions in life. (Photo: Free images)

Tuesdays will be devoted to waxing eloquent about music. I'm no expert musician  although I did take piano lessons for 10 years  but I'm very good at appreciating the stuffing out of music. I learned how to critique it intelligently in my college Music Appreciation 101 class. (Thanks, Professor Vandermark!) In that class, I also learned how many types of music I enjoy  which is almost every type I've heard so far.

I love to review concerts, albums and share new music discoveries. I'll make it my goal on Tuesdays to expose you to as wide a variety of tunes as you can possibly handle. 

I will welcome your suggestions and recommendations, too.

Fine Art Friday

The world is a colorful place. (Photo: Free images)

On Fridays, I'll talk about poetry, visual arts, drama, film and sometimes other categories of literature. I might discuss more music on this day, too — most likely classical or sacred music.

With ArtPrize coming up, I'll plan to do a couple of posts about what I see there during the competition.

Storytelling Sunday

Oh, books! I love you so much. (Photo: Free images)

I am a journalist. Storytelling Sunday will offer a chance for me to share tidbits about what I'm learning at work. 

It also will give me a chance to review a book here and there.

But, primarily, Sunday will be the day of the week on which I'll share the tales of what's been happening in my life, from people I've met to places I've been to events in the past to goals for the future. 

I'll tell other people's stories as part of that. If there's one thing I love about being a journalist, it's that I get to share the untold stories. The fact that I and my fellow journalists are entrusted with this responsibility is a delightful miracle. I don't take it for granted.

My first Groovy Tuesday

I'll keep this first one brief.

The song below, "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," is by Cage the Elephant. It was released in 2009 in the U.S. after its 2008 debut in the UK.

The first time I heard it and really listened closely was when it came on my Pandora Black Keys station a few months ago while I was running at the YMCA. [The Black Keys fuel my running playlists many days of the week.]

I find value in this song because it illustrates how no kid dreams of growing up to be a drug dealer or prostitute, but a series of unfortunate events, choices or circumstances certainly can make it seem like the only option. And, once you get in, it's hard to get out.

Listen via the YouTube video below, and try to absorb its emotional impact.

What do you think of the song?

Now that you've had a chance to listen to it, I'd love to hear from you. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook Community page.
(Writers must write. Photo: Free images)

Did you know Grand Rapids has a writers conference that's absolutely free? Welcome to the delight I felt when I learned about Jot: The GR Writers Mini-Conference, a semi-annual one-night event hosted on Friday, Sept. 12, at Baker Book House. 

I felt invigorated and refreshed by what I heard and learned about blogging, editing and the discipline of writing regularly. I'd like to share some of those lessons with you.

'The Gift of Vulnerability' in writing

I found the most to connect with in the talk by Ellen Stumbo, a blogger and journalist who spoke on "The Gift of Vulnerability." Vulnerability in writing is something I strive for, but I often struggle to let myself be open out of fear of what readers will think of me in all my messiness. 

Like cracked pavement, we're all broken. (Photo: Free images)
Stumbo, a pastor's wife as well as a writer, opened her speech with a confession: She wanted her daughter to die. Having hooked me with that opener, she could say anything next, and I'd be along for the ride. 

She described the dark days after her daughter was born with Down syndrome, during which Stumbo often dug her nails into her palms so forcefully that they left marks, just to keep herself from doing something worse.

When she began blogging honestly about her fears and anger, she was set free from the shame. She began to connect with other women, other moms, who had felt the same way but were too scared to say the words out loud. When she said the words, "I wish my daughter away," she released herself -- and countless others she inspired -- from the bondage of fear. She could let it go -- and heal, and offer others hope.

Stumbo's gift to me on Friday night was multi-layered:
  1. She reminded me of what I've been told lately by more than one writing mentor and friend: Share that passion inside you. You've had experiences unique to yourself, and you've responded to them and learned from them in ways that only you can share. 
  2. Stumbo stressed that half-truths are no truths at all. If you share only part of the story, without revealing any of your weaknesses or motivations, you have not served the reader. You have preached a message you believe, but have not explained why you believe it. The reader might end up feeling confused and alienated by your avoidance of the whole truth. The reader might walk away worse off than when s/he came to your blog.
  3. She clarified that vulnerability is not a chance to put someone else down, a chance to be spiteful, a confession without discretion, or a chance to say "it's not fair." It's also not a good idea to offer up the whole hot mess if you're still in the thick of it.
  4. She emphasized that vulnerability is a chance to offer hope, a chance to bring light into darkness and a chance to share your brokenness to bring about redemption. I would certainly say she is flying that flag in her own writing, after having read a few posts from her blog.
I look forward to following the presenters in the future -- especially Ellen Stumbo -- and I'm so thankful to the Jot organizers for their labor of love in putting on the free conference.

I hope to meet some of you, readers, at the next Jot gathering.

About the conference

The event, now in its fourth year, was organized by four local writers: Andrew Rogers, a published nonfiction and short-story author and acquisitions editor at Discovery House Publishers; Josh Mosey, a fiction writer, blogger and Baker Book House employee; Bob Evenhouse, a fiction writer who is in the process of seeking publication for a young adult series; and Matthew Landrum, MFA, poet and poetry editor for Structo Magazine.

The organizers created a four-hour, post workday structure for the event, which I found to be very helpful. Four keynote speakers gave brief talks with five- to 10-minute breaks between each, then at the end of the keynotes, attendees could choose among three simultaneous workshops: one on poetry, one on speculative fiction and one on blogging. I attended the blogging workshop.

The keynote speakers were Alison Hodgson, a writer and humorist; Andrew Rogers, conference co-founder; Ellen Stumbo, a blogger and journalist; and Sam Carbaugh, a cartoonist, illustrator and newly published children's book author. I appreciated the insights shared by these speakers and fellow writers I connected with during the workshop.
These are thumbnails of pages I recently coordinated/edited for MLive. (Photo: Rachel E. Watson)

I get to read for a living at my job. I'm an editor who does a lot of little things that boil down to one basic responsibility: Aim to leave every story better than you found it.

This fits the meticulous, detail-oriented side of my personality perfectly.

But there's another itch that gets scratched all day long: I get to learn something new about a wide range of topics every day. From the wild and weird to the cool and quirky to the fascinating and moving, my day is one discovery after another.

Wild and weird

Today, for instance, I learned that Paradise Funeral Chapel in Saginaw recently added a drive-thru viewing window for funeral visitations. People drive up to the window, and a motion sensor causes the curtains to draw back for 3 minutes to reveal the casket containing their dear, departed loved one. Visitors then may sign the guest book and send it inside via a Pneumatic tube like the ones used at banks. Or, they can write a check to the memorial fund and drop it into a metal deposit box mounted under the window.

My co-workers and I were all horrified and morbidly amused by this idea. I wondered aloud whether there's a fast-casual ambience to match the concept.

We all agreed it's a bizarre idea. Funerals are for mourning the deceased. They also exist to bring comfort to the family and friends, by the family and friends. You can't do that properly while idling in your car 10 paces outside where the family is gathered.

Cool and quirky

MLive hosts an always enjoyable, frequently thought-provoking guest column called Ethics & Religion Talk that's coordinated by a local rabbi. He forwards readers' questions to a multi-faith panel of experts, who aim to answer each question in about 200 words or less, using evidence from their faith traditions and doctrines to back their answers.

 This week, a reader mailed an anonymous question in an envelope with no return address. And can you blame him? His question was, Is it OK to go to nudist beaches?

The topic, though silly on the surface, gets answered in thoughtful, yet divergent ways by each respective member of the panel. No one treats the reader's question as anything less than a serious one. I'm thankful the rabbi has created a safe space for questions about the nagging things that keep (some of us) up at night.

Fascinating and moving

I always feel lucky when I get to read a story that fully engages my heart and mind. I coordinate the Health section for The Grand Rapids Press print edition, and the content I come across in my "travels" is full of surprises.

I particularly love Sue Schroder's Living with Cancer column. Sue is a retired Press editor who now freelances. About five years ago, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In the years since, she has written weekly from the heart about the travails of cancer. She shares her own quip-laced, whip-smart, funny insights and generously tells the stories of others walking through Cancer Land.

Recently, she featured an oncologist who blogs in his spare time about his discoveries, triumphs and failures while practicing medicine.

The story of "Doctor Blogger," as Sue calls him, taught me the best way to bring humanity into your work is to show yourself human. He doesn't mince words about himself, and his patients find this incredibly compelling and relatable. What if every doctor tried this? What kind of impact would that make on the health care field?

A second moving story I remember reading in the Health section was about couples who find true love while in assisted living facilities. One of our monthly community contributors, JoAnn Abraham, from Porter Hills Retirement Community, wrote the story. I can't share the full story here because it's not available online, but I can tell you about it.

The headline was "It's never too late for love," and the couple pictured were Bob and Lois Hardesty, 95 and 91, who met while at Porter Hills and have now been married 13 years.

Here's an excerpt:
Bob Hardesty, a resident of Porter Hills, was the leader of Magic Carpet, a volunteer service to drive people to their doctor appointments. He had been a widower for two years when Lois, also a widow of two years, showed up to be a driver.
“I knew I was interested right away,” Lois said.

How cool is that? Finding a new flame when your clock is winding down.

This is what keeps me coming back

I never get tired of hearing the types of stories mentioned above. I feel privileged to work in a place that facilitates the thing that nourishes our souls: information, memories, news, heartfelt stories.

Thanks for reading!

Your turn. I love to hear from readers. I welcome your comments on any of the stories above, and I specifically wish to hear your wild and weird, cool and quirky, fascinating and moving tales. Leave a comment below or over on my Facebook Community page

Note: The views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the perspective of MLive.
My Grandma Donna Marie Watson is shown
in her senior photo. This would have been
about 1948. (Photo: Family archives)

Note: This is a series about hearing my Grandma Donna Marie Watson's voice for the first time. She died before I was born. Part I describes what I felt and thought when I heard the audio recordings. This is Part II.

The setting

Travel with me for a few moments, back in time, to a place that no longer exists.

It's 1979, and we're on the crisp, orderly campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Instead of finding ourselves in a light-filled, modern, spacious, attractive facility, we walk through the doors of a dim, dingy, cinder-block building with flickering fluorescent lights and sparse furnishings. Sounds echo harshly, coldly off the cement walls as people move about and converse.

We've entered a building that houses the School for the Blind, a program that no longer exists. WMU still offers a graduate degree in Blindness and Low Vision Studies, but it's geared toward training professionals to work with the blind; it's not about teaching vision-impaired people new life skills.

 But, in 1979, the school did exist, and my Grandma, who had lost her vision because of complications from diabetes, had enrolled.

As I mentioned in Part I, My Aunt Kathleen and Dad – John – dropped her off on her first day. They were 20 and 21. Grandma was 49.

The sounds

The recordings, which are first and second drafts of an audio "letter" to my Aunt Kathleen, are telling to the observant listener.

In the first take, I hear the instructor's voice, its gentle tone and slight Southern drawl, calmly and patiently explaining directions to Grandma about what she should do for her first try at recording a "letter."

Instructor: "It's what we call a built-in microphone. You don't have to hold a microphone. You can sit there – for this kind of recording – you know, and just talk. You can do it anywhere, really. So what I'm going to have you do is make a recording home to your daughter. Or we're going to make the recording and then send it home. OK?"

Grandma: "All right," she says softly, barely audibly.

Instructor: "I'm going to leave you alone so you can do that. You (should) feel like you can be very relaxed with the recorder. Don't strain yourself for conversation. Pretend that your daughter is across the kitchen table from you, and you're both enjoying a cup of coffee. OK?"

Grandma: "Mm-kay," very softly, very timidly.

Instructor: "That way, it'll help you keep your mind off the machine and on the person you're talking to. I'm going to get up and leave you alone."

Grandma: "This is all ... ready to ... ?"

Instructor: "You're recording, right now."

His chair scrapes the floor harshly and loudly, and the sound echoes as he stands up from the table to leave. He drifts out into the hall without closing the door behind him. We can hear someone playing music in another room.

For draft one, Grandma slowly begins spinning her letter, but she is distracted by scraping/banging sounds in the room as the instructor returns to help her restart the process for draft two.

Draft two is very, very special.

Please, help yourself and listen to both drafts below. They're a couple minutes long apiece.

I hope you'll be as enchanted with her as I have been. She sounds so fragile, so gentle, so lovable. I want to know her, I want to be on the other side of that kitchen table, savoring each sip of our coffee as we delay, delay, delay, beginning the day's work.

I think we would have stood up after our coffee together, and we would have cleaned up the dishes, tidied the house, and started baking cookies, assembling lunches, continuing the sewing projects. We might have gone out to run some errands together and returned just in time to start dinner preparations.

Was that what a day in your life would have been like, Grandma?

Leaving a legacy

When she first learned she would be recording this one-sided conversation to send to my aunt, I wonder if Grandma could have imagined that, 35 years later, her then-unborn granddaughter (me) would be listening and learning to love the grandmother she never knew.

It reminds me none of us know how we'll affect the people we leave behind. As a writer, this moves and challenges me deeply. It means that I must put great care into what I create. I must infuse each line with honesty and love. I must try to think about how what I say can touch the people I love.

I now "remember" that my grandmother was a soft-spoken, kind, gentle woman. To me, these recordings seem to hint that she also was anxious, shy and, at times, lacked confidence in herself. I can learn from the strengths and the flaws she exhibited in these two-minute tapes.

And now, because of what I've heard in her voice, I intend to sit with my aunt(s), her daughters, and learn more about Grandma.

Share your thoughts

We all leave behind a legacy. What do you want your grandchildren to remember about you? 
I recently "met" someone who died before I was born. My paternal grandmother, Donna Marie Watson.

In this digital age, it's easy to take for granted the comparatively recent luxury of recorded sounds.

The first known voice recording was produced on a phonoautograph in 1857. It was more than another century before audio recording became a practical capability for the average American household.

Now, it's as ubiquitous as the smartphones in our hands. It's a marvel, then, that not all that long ago, hearing your deceased relative's voice would have been impossible.

Donna Marie Watson (then Hammond), center, is shown with
her two younger sisters, Mary and Pat, circa early 1940s.
(Photo from Suzanne Shaw)
My Grandma Donna died in October 1982 of complications from diabetes. In 1979, after she had lost her vision, she enrolled in a School for the Blind at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

My Aunt Kathleen describes it as a "drab place with cinder-block walls," which mattered only to sighted visitors such as my aunt and my dad. They didn't really want to leave her there on the first day; according to my aunt, they wiled away time afterward just sitting by the river, contemplating the sorrow they felt over putting her in a boarding school. They were just 20 and 21. Grandma was 49.

The good news is Grandma learned a lot while she was there. Her instructors showed her how to use tape recorders to "write" letters to family members, which she then mailed in place of written communication.

In the mailers in which the tapes were enclosed, the instructors included directions for family members to record over the cassettes with new messages for the students to listen to in return. Aunt Kathleen said she always hesitated to follow the directions because she didn't want to lose Grandma Donna's original recordings.

So, instead, Aunt Kathleen saved the tapes all those years. She recently had a friend convert a couple of the "letters" from analog to digital so the rest of the family could enjoy listening to Grandma Donna.

I was astonished by how familiar and comforting her voice sounded, and how much her tone and inflection is a perfect mixture of my three aunts', her daughters', voices.

As the tears formed in my eyes over the miracle of "meeting" a woman I've always missed, I thought about how she must have been feeling:

  • Handwritten letters were the norm, so it must have been a big leap of faith for her to switch to a taped-letter format to communicate with her grown children. She is recorded sounding nervous that she must speak to an empty room, taping a one-sided conversation.
  • Did she worry that she wouldn't be able to edit her "first draft" in the same way that you can do when you're using a pen and paper or typing the letter on a typewriter?
  • Did she wonder why the instructors were having her practice this skill instead of phone communication? Was she already contemplating her mortality and hoping to leave part of herself behind?

Donna Marie Watson is shown circa 1950s.
(Photo shared by Kathleen Starkey)

As I said before, I always felt cheated by not having met her. What skills would she have passed on to me and my siblings? How would a relationship with her have shaped me?

These are some things I imagine I would have learned from her had we been able to share a life, face to face:

  • Cooking. She left behind a much-treasured handwritten recipe book that my dad has saved all these years. It has always been the go-to source for our family's no-bake cookie recipe, plus the Christmas treats: sugar cookies, peanut brittle, fudge, you name it.
  • Music. I don't even know what she liked. But from everything I've heard, she was a gentle woman with a soft heart. In my experience, people like that are a conduit for emotion. And music brings out the best in them. I can relate to that feeling myself.
  • Stories. She and her German mother, Hilda Nafziger Hammond, and jolly sisters, Mary and Pat, must have had such good times together. When I picture them, I picture laughter, cooking and story-swapping.

I won't get answers to many of my questions about Grandma Donna's inner life, at least not this side of heaven. But I am thankful that now I have heard her voice.

Share your story

Do you own precious recordings of a long-deceased relative's voice? Or are you creating sound bites for posterity? If so, what are three essential things you want your descendants to remember about you? Leave me a comment below or start a discussion thread over at my Facebook Community page, Rachel E. Watson.

Thank you for reading

This subject matter is close to my heart. I'm honored you took the time to share the experience with me. Come back again, and we'll chat some more.

Note: This blog entry is Part I of a series. Check back here for the concluding chapters.