Quiet Confidence: Molly Drooger puts her best foot forward

I haven’t posted since the summer for a number of reasons. First, I’m back at school, which means my time for recreational writing is limited. Second, I never want to post something that wastes your time. Third, I’m interning with Taylor University‘s marketing department, so my writing muscles are focused on specific projects. Over the course of the semester, I’ve written a number of feature articles, among other things. Two of these articles have been slated for the spring edition of the alumni magazine. The third was just posted to Taylor’s web site.

Here’s a preview:

Molly Drooger

Quiet Confidence: Molly Drooger puts her best foot forward

After a roller coaster season of injuries, recoveries and hard work, Taylor Women’s Soccer season ended Saturday, November 9, the Trojans falling 1-0 to Spring Arbor and bringing four athletes’ Taylor careers to a close.

Two days later, with most of the team still enjoying their break from practice, senior forward Molly Drooger hit the gym. Grabbing weights and laying claim to an exercise mat, the Taylor record setter—a Crossroads League Offensive Player of the Year, First-Team All-Crossroads League selection and NAIA All-American Honorable Mention, all in 2012—proved true Head Coach Scott Stan’s words:

“She doesn’t want to be mediocre at any point in her life.”

Continue reading.

Pieced together: Products of Nate Katz’s obsessions

This is the final piece I wrote for my summer internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts, and probably my favorite piece from this summer.

Nate Katz, 23, leans over the table, a strip of Scotch tape stretched between his thumbs. He’s focused on a small stack of paper in front of him, an inventory of some kind with thumbnail images of movie covers in the top half and a list in 14-point font in the bottom half. He’s just updated the list, cut it to size, and now has it lined up with the thumbnails, ready to be made one by the power of Scotch.

Nate’s father, Jeff, stands at the side of the table, talking about Nate’s strip mall portraits which hang in clear glass frames on the surrounding walls. Some are long rows of stores from various Chicago-land suburbs. Others are just 8 1/2 by 11, on Nate’s standard—computer paper—featuring before-and-afters of Dunkin Donuts and Burger King renovations, with floor plans of restrooms sketched out below the colored pencil portraits.

“Is this one real, Nate?” Jeff asks, holding one of the before-and-afters. Through the clear glass of the frame, the back side of the portrait’s paper is visible. Two photos: one of a toilet, one of a sink.

“I don’t know,” Nate replies, glancing up as he tears another strip of tape. “It’s in my mind.”

Creativity—putting pen to paper or hand to keyboard—is one of Nate’s main ways of getting what’s in his mind out. At age three and a half, Nate was diagnosed with Hyperlexia, a form of autism characterized by early advanced reading abilities, excellent visual and auditory memories, but a slow learning of language. Because of this, Nate has a hard time communicating to others what’s going on inside of him.

What others tend to see of him are his obsessions: bathroom fixtures and setups (he puts together booklets titled “The Complete Fixtures of” various townships and maps out floor plans of public restrooms); in grade school, The Simpsons, until he decided no more, for reasons still unknown; and since moving to Cooperstown with his parents and younger brothers in 2003, strip malls from familiar Chicago suburbs that he misses.

These strip malls—drawn in pen, filled in with colored pencil, laminated with Scotch tape, and framed front-and-back in clear glass—currently stretch across the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery’s third floor walls. They are simple, in no way claiming to appear realistic. Yet, they are detailed. Look closely at the Dunkin Donut door handles and the KFC Colonel’s face in miniature. Each piece requires thought and precision, which Nate carefully provides.

Jeff now sets a three-dimensional open-topped cardboard house on the table. The second floor fits the first floor, the three sides of the front bay windows lining up perfectly. Nate made this. A scaled-down model of the Katz’s house in Illinois. The only thing missing is the addition made by the new owners. Nate’s seen it, but only from the outside. To do a proper model, he’d need to see it from the inside, so he could know the floor plan.

The detail on the house’s interior is better than any Lego model would allow: from door and window placement to the red, white, and blue stripes on Nate’s bedroom walls. He recently repainted his Cooperstown bedroom to match.

“There’s a true authenticity to what he’s doing,” Jeff says, as Nate presses the final piece of tape onto his inventory and leaves the room.

Jeff opens a cartoon cookbook that’s sitting on the table. Nate designed it from cover to cover and put it together, joining the pages on their left edges and making the cardboard cover. It’s themed around a cartoon character Nate likes. Nate made it because the cartooners hadn’t.

“He makes things he wishes come real,” Jeff explains, flipping through the pages.

The strip malls?

“They’re just something he loves and he wants drawn.”

Nate’s strip mall portraits are currently on display on the third floor of the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell

Stronger than you think: The world of CrossFit in Cooperstown, NY

“We are the machines.”

That’s the answer you’ll get if you walk into Cooperstown CrossFit (CCF) and ask about treadmills, ellipticals, or any other kind of motorized exercise equipment. Then, you’ll be asked to join in the warmup and WOD (workout of the day).

CCF logo

By stepping inside CCF’s one-room facility at the Maple Ridge Plaza on Route 28 in Hartwick Seminary, you’ve entered a community of exercisers who enjoy their time at the gym (or “box,” as CrossFitters call it) and look forward to every workout.

CCF members are there for themselves—to stay healthy and keep in shape—and they are there for each other: to encourage and challenge their fellow members to push farther, work harder.

Everyone follows the day’s workout, designed and written on a whiteboard by CCF founder and trainer, Dan Murdock. If you don’t understand the jargon, don’t worry. Murdock will explain and then direct you through the workout, making sure you use proper form and technique.

“People go to the gym and don’t have any form whatsoever and think they’re doing it great,” said CCF member Christopher Zeh. “Dan makes sure you’re doing it right.”

Murdock started CCF last summer—officially opening August 1, 2012—after doing CrossFit workouts on his own for about two years.

Before exploring the CrossFit regimen, Murdock followed a standard exercise prescription: three days of weight lifting with running on the days in between. His results didn’t please him:

“I was getting slower, fatter, weaker,” he said.

He started researching and ended up learning about compound movements where you move multiple joints at the same time, but he wasn’t sure how to build them into a workout.

“Then my wife Michelle notices that our friends in California were doing this thing called CrossFit that used compound movements,” Murdock said. “She tells me, ‘I think I’m going to try it out.’”

While Murdock continued pumping iron for two hours in the morning, his wife experimented with CrossFit.

“And she [was] getting leaner, stronger, faster,” Murdock said. “I’m like, ‘I’ve got to take the plunge and do it.’”

The first CrossFit workout Murdock tried was seven rounds of 15 box jumps, 15 kettleball swings, and 15 power cleans with light weight.

“I think, ‘Twelve minutes easy, I’ll be done,’” Murdock said. “Forty-seven minutes later, my CD had run out. I’m laying in a puddle of sweat on the floor, going, ‘What was that?’”

A year later, Murdock did the same workout in 21 minutes. It was the beginning of a revolution in his fitness world.

Murdock’s interest in growing stronger had come from a practical need:

“We heat our house with wood, and I cut and split the wood by hand.”

The year before Murdock started doing CrossFit, he began cutting a load of logs in July and finished near the end of September. The first year that he did CrossFit, the same amount of logs took him only a week to cut.

The first three months Murdock did CrossFit, the workouts were all indoor, bodyweight exercises. One day, the workout that came up was to run 10 kilometers.

“Five a.m. I head out. It’s the middle of February. It’s rainy, snowy, gross. Awful conditions. I run five kilometers out, five kilometers back. [At] 6:02, I’m back at my house.”

A year passes. The longest interval Murdock runs is a mile. On another ugly day in February, he’s again told to run 10 kilometers. He finishes at 5:52 a.m.

“In a year, I shaved 10 minutes off my 10K by not running.”

By then, Murdock was hooked.

He visited Albany CrossFit and read articles and studies on the fitness regimen. January 2012, he went to his first CrossFit seminar in Philadelphia and got level one training. When the trainers at Mohawk Valley CrossFit went to a seminar, he filled in for them and found that he liked helping others work out.

July 2012, he rented CCF’s space, set up the equipment—pullup rig, gymnastic rings, barbells, plyometric boxes—and hosted a few free days. On August 1, he officially opened his box.

What can you expect from a CrossFit workout?

Warmup, mobility, and strength or skill routines specifically designed to prepare you for the WOD. All of the movements Murdock coaches you through are comparable to movements from everyday life.

An example is G.I. Jane, a burpee-pullup WOD that sends CrossFitters from facedown on the floor in a pushup position to the pullup bar for as long as it takes them to do 100 reps.

“You need to be able to get yourself off the floor,” Murdock said, “and someday, you’re going to need to pull yourself up on something. That’s a functional movement.”

CrossFit workouts treat your whole body as a single muscle group, forcing your arms, shoulders, and back to work with your hips, thighs, and calves.

“You’re getting the technique down and building your body from the core out, so you have a more stable, reliable set of feet underneath you,” said CCF member Jeremy Croft, who’s had problems with compressed disks in his lower back for about five years. He’s been doing CrossFit for eight months.

“I used to get [back spasms] at least once every month and a half,” Croft said. “I’d really be popping the Alleave, trying to subside swelling and inflammation in my back. Since I’ve started [CrossFit], I’ve strengthened all of those core muscles that support your back and your spine and your hips.”

He hasn’t had a serious spasm since he started doing CrossFit.

If 100 burpees and pullups strike you as too intense, relax. The workout can be scaled down, or you may be underestimating yourself.

“Sometimes, people come in and go, ‘I don’t know if I want to do [the WOD],’” Murdock said. “Then they crush it. I ask, ‘So what do you think?’ ‘It was easy.’”

Having a specific goal helps.

“You have an objective that you’re trying to complete, which makes you a little more involved,” Croft said.

So does the CCF community: The first time Zeh came to CCF, he met and defeated the WOD.

“It was the hardest workout, and I felt so great at the end,” Zeh said. “Just being in here and the camaraderie with everybody trying to help out everybody else . . . Wow.”

“Everybody’s working toward a common goal here, which means everybody’s slapping hands by the end of it,” Croft said.

“I’ve never said this is how we roll. It just happens,” Murdock said. “People cheer each other on, congratulate each other, introduce each other. Somebody new comes in the door, everybody goes ‘hey! I’m so-and-so. Who are you?’”

When you surprise yourself—by doing one pullup or 100—you want to see what else you’re capable of.

“It’s not, ‘Aww man. I’ve got to put in a CrossFit routine,’” Croft said. “We never think of it that way. It’s ‘let’s see what we can do today.’”

“It’s fun,” Murdock said. “Not like doing the same thing every day. That becomes a job. This people look forward to.”

Cooperstown CrossFit is located at 4773 State Highway 28 in the Maple Ridge Plaza in Hartwick Seminary. Hours are Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m, and Saturdays, 8:30 a.m. to noon. Drop-ins are welcome. First time is free. Memberships are available. Reduced rates for active law enforcement, fire and emergency personnel, and active or retired military.

Alice Guy-Blache, forgotten filmmaker

Seat yourself in a movie theater. The lights dim. You hear the projector and reel whir to life. A vision floods your eyes.

You’ve experienced it before: the close-ups emphasizing characters’ facial expressions; the musical themes introducing characters, melting together or clashing to enhance drama; the special effects applied to accomplish the right visual, whether explosions or never-ending staircases.

The movie is new, but the ideas behind what you see and hear are old. Older, in fact, than many filmmakers realize. And the credit for them—for close-ups, sound synchronization, and special effects—may belong to a woman.

Alice-Guy-Blache-PortraitAlice Guy-Blache (1873—1968) was a filmmaker over the turn of the last century, when moving pictures were brand new and silent short films (like those of Charlie Chaplin) were growing popular.

As secretary for Gaumont-Paris, a camera manufacturer, Alice witnessed firsthand the constant changes made to photograph technology.

Others may have scoffed at the innovators’ obsessions with film cameras, but 23-year-old Alice didn’t. Instead, she asked if she could borrow the Gaumont-Demeny camera, received permission, and made her first short film, “La Fée aux Choux,” or “The Cabbage Fairy”.

When Gaumont began producing movies, Alice became one of the studio’s first film directors. By 1897, she was Gaumont’s first Head of Production, overseeing a team of directors. In 1907, she moved to the U.S. and opened her own studio.

Twenty-four years after beginning her film career, Alice had written, directed, and produced more than 1,000 films, worn nearly every hat in the industry, and made innovations from behind the lens that are still used today.

“She took the possibility and decided to make it an opportunity,” said Pamela Green, co-founder of PIC Agency, an audio-visual communications studio in Los Angeles, known for its title sequences for films including The Bourne Supremacy, The Illusionist, and Twilight.

Pamela has been intensively researching Alice for the past three years. She first heard of Alice on a show called Reel Models.

“I couldn’t believe with all the accomplishments she’d had, that I’d never heard of her,” Pamela said. “The body of work itself is incredible.”

For the past two years, Pamela and her business partner, Jarik van Sluijs, have been traveling the country on their own dimes, chasing Alice’s story.

“You don’t go and pick up a camera as a secretary, make a film, move to the States where you don’t speak the language, and make over 1,000 movies, and have nobody know you,” Pamela said.

Pamela and Jarik have talked to descendants of Alice, descendants of her employees, and even people who knew her directly. They’ve tracked down her films in various forms, found print and audio interviews with Alice and letters handwritten by her.

They’ve learned that Metro, which later became part of MGM, distributed Alice’s films, and that Samuel Goldwin’s company (Goldwyn Pictures) rented production facilities from her studio. They’ve learned that the world she lived in was a lot like our own—on the cusp of change with new technologies making the difference, better or worse, for its future. They’ve learned that Alice was a lot like us: strong-willed, determined, not about to be turned away.

“If we were to grab her and put her in society today, she would fit,” Pamela said. “She was a CEO in a time when it wasn’t possible for a woman. Instead of seeing the boundaries, she saw the possibilities.”

With all they’ve learned, Pamela and Jarik have decided to share Alice with us by putting together a documentary featuring some of the best talents of today’s film industry.

Executive produced by Robert Redford and narrated by Jodie Foster, Be Natural: The untold story of Alice Guy-Blache will introduce you to a woman who’s impact on film has been almost entirely ignored.

Using methods that Alice introduced, along with today’s technology, Pamela and Jarik will educate and entertain you with the true story of Alice Guy-Blache, the world’s first female director.

Except, there’s a hitch. And no one likes sales pitches or hearing they have to pay for something, but here it is: Alice’s story can’t be told unless $200,000 is raised by August 26.

The funds will allow Pamela and Jarik to

  • view the rest of Alice’s 100-year-old films, in their various forms, and gain the rights to use clips from them in the documentary
  • bring others into the project, as they piece everything together into one unified film
  • take the film to festivals next May, where they’ll raise awareness to Alice’s story.

But best of all, the funds will allow Pamela and Jarik to bring the film to you, the viewer who loves any story about passion, determination, and overcoming the odds.

Help Pamela and Jarik overcome their odds.

When I made Art Spander a sandwich

One of the benefits of my summer job (working at Danny’s Main Street Market in Cooperstown, New York) are the random fascinating people who come buy sandwiches. There are conductors who work with the Glimmerglass Opera, construction workers and delivery men, Baseball Hall of Fame employees and interns, and today, Art Spander, an award-winning sports writer who’s covered everything from Wimbledon and the Masters to the Rose and Super Bowls.

He came at a quiet time in the late afternoon, somewhere between 4:30 and 5, and ordered a sandwich on gluten-free bread from my co-worker, Mikey, an 18-year-old high school graduate with a knack for getting people talking. (I need to study this kid’s technique. He learns interesting things about literally every customer he waits on.)

I overheard Spander telling Mikey about his recent travels for his sports-writing career (he’s 75 years old and currently a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and RealClearSports.com), so I nudged myself into the conversation and asked him where he’s written for. He shared the basic information that makes up the second paragraph on his web site’s About page:

Spander began his career as a news writer for United Press International in Los Angeles in 1960, and started writing sports full time in 1963 for the Santa Monica Outlook where he was the beat writer for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1965 he moved to the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered golf, football, baseball and basketball. Spander became the lead sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner in 1979.

Then he joked a bit:

You’re making my sandwich while you’re standing here talking to me, aren’t you?

I laughed a little, went to the back where I pulled the gluten-free bread out of the oven, whipped up his sandwich, brought it to the front, poured his iced tea, and rang him out. Then, Mikey and I left him alone with his sandwich, tea, and smartphone (I’m guessing he was checking Twitter).

He got a dry cappuccino before he left — all foam, no milk — and I rang him out again.

“I have to ask you, ’cause I’m a writing major,” I said, finally steeling up the courage to make use of my question-asking skills. “Do you have any tips for those starting out?”

Then, I listened again.

Art Spander gave me two pieces of advice.

1. Learn the English language. Dependent and independent clauses. Where the commas belong. Misplaced modifiers. Know it all — better than the back of your hand. That way, you can edit and make real corrections, not guess-it-goes-this-way changes. I ran, and I fell needs a comma. I ran and fell does not.

2. Read as much as possible about as much as possible. You may only be interested in writing about one topic, but you need to know what’s going on in the world, in order to understand the topic in its broader context. “Plus,” he said, “you never know what you’re gonna have to write.”

“This was never hard for me, because I’ve always had a lot of interests,” Spander said.

Me too.

I’ve been home this summer. Making sandwiches, slicing meats, interviewing people every once in a while with a recorder that catches more fuzz than an FM radio. What am I doing? Where am I going? How am I gonna get anywhere? These two tips were the pieces of affirmation I needed.

Know the language: Commas have always eluded me, but I feel very fluent in this language some call English and I prefer to call American. I know what a misplaced modifier is. I know the difference between independent and dependent clauses.

Read as much as you can about everything: I’m interested in everything, so this is easy. In fact, I’ve been doing it this summer. I’ve learned about how astronauts exercise at the International Space Station. I’ve learned about a man who, permanently damaged by an accident as a child, found some more of himself through running. I’ve learned about sex trafficking and the ways traffickers force their victims into submission. I’ve learned about addiction and am currently learning about the process of rehabilitation. I’ve learned about a fascinating documentary project and made moves to learn more from the creators themselves.

I’ve been making sandwiches. I’ve been slicing countless pounds of Boar’s Head meats. But I’ve been doing a lot more than you might guess from the amount of time I spend behind the counter in my Danny’s hat.

Today, I made Art Spander a sandwich, and I reaped two lessons for the young writer.

“That’s free,” Spander said, as he took his cappuccino from the counter and returned to his booth.

Thanks. I appreciate it.

Encountering my ghost

I saw a ghost today. I greeted him with a hello, asked him “how’s life?” and made him a sandwich. He did the same for me, minus the sandwich.

I was nervous as he watched me cover the bread with chicken, cheese, and peppers. My hands shook, but I did my best to hide it — by making the sandwich faster.

As I fumbled in conversation, my coworker acted as my security blanket, asking questions when all I could think was he’s here.

“How do you know me so well?” the ghost asked my coworker, and for once I wasn’t the one he’d forgotten.

I don’t talk about the ghost. My memories of him involve too many emotions, too much pain and turmoil from a past which means more to me than it ever did to him.

“Him?” you ask. “It’s a ghost.”

Yes, but only a ghost because — for my heart’s sake — I’ve forgotten he’s still alive.

Brief sparks of fireworks.

All we do is make fireworks.

Here, like us,

for a moment.

Gone after a few

flutters of lashes.

Our hearts may be in it

all effort thrown forth.

But our hearts, our efforts

are weak, short-lasting.

The burst of light,

thunder-like boom,

a moment of wonder,

beauty that fizzles out,

darkens,

drops.

Such great work,

resulting from hours of effort,

magnificent, awe-inspiring,

reduced to ash, dust, dirt.

But the stars.

If our work could only be

twinkling lights that shine for years,

not moving in the sky,

reliable, always,

lasting longer than we can dream.

If our hearts, our efforts would produce

stars, then we’d

be in a better place.

We’d affect change,

shine light not for a moment,

but for millions.

We wouldn’t need to train others

to build what we’ve built,

do what we do, because

what we’ve built,

what we’ve done

will always be there

for them to see.

“Look at that star,” we’d say,

pointing at a speck near the Big Dipper’s handle.

“That’s the light I created.

What will you create?”

But permanence leaves

no room for mistakes.

What’s done is done.

Your star will shine or

explode into a black hole that

sucks others in, wreaks destruction.

Permanent mistakes bring

permanent consequences,

no hope of salvation.

Stars may last, but

the brief sparks of fireworks are

quickly forgotten

amid thousands of other light explosions.

All we do is make fireworks,

but with our mistake-heavy efforts,

our easily-confused hearts,

a flash of light that soon disappears

may be a better result than

man-made stars.

In the Home of Susan Jones Kenyon

susan5

This is another piece I wrote for my current internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts.

Walking into Susan Jones Kenyon’s house is the closest you can get to entering the artist’s mind.

As soon as you set foot through the side door, you’re surrounded by Susan’s art: paintings of Otsego Lake and Kingfisher Tower, portraits of her three children, pots featuring angels and fairies, and dog bowls—yes, dog bowls—that Susan painted while working for Bradley Goodyear Smith as a designer.

Take a few more steps and you’ll enter the Kenyon living room, adjacent to Susan’s studio on the southwest corner of the house. The walls are light brown and nearly covered with Susan’s oil paintings.

If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive when Susan, 54, is on the phone with a frame company—allowing you a few extra moments to look around, soak up the art she surrounds herself with, and study the canvas painting she’s sending to the Cooperstown Art Association’s national show before you ask the self-taught artist when she started painting and find out . . .

Susan: I’ve painted ever since I was a child. The story is that my mother allowed me to paint on my walls. That’s really where it started, where I could create. From there, it wasn’t until the last of my three children was born that I seriously started to paint. That’s when I started with portraits. From there, it went to folk art . . . and from there, Bradley Goodyear Smith hired me as a designer to do dog dishes. I did that for four years . . . and then I started wanting to create my own art, get my own style. What is the art in me? What would I paint on my own?

SCA: You describe yourself as a self-taught artist. Can you expand on that?

Susan: Being self-taught, there are no rules. That’s the great thing. When I look at the masters’ paintings or even other artists, local or whatever, I like to look at how they use their brush strokes, their interpretation of paint.

I’m a very visual person—I’ll forget names and things, but I’ll remember visually little, minute things. For instance, if somebody says, “I live on Route whatever,” I’ll say, “Well, what color is your house? Do you have a mailbox? What color is that? Do you have a garden? What flowers are in it?” Everything’s very visual to me.

I believe I have a gift of seeing color within color. When I look at something, I don’t just see a flat color. When I’ve painted portraits of people, I see many colors within their face. I can look at your face and I can predominantly see one color with you, which is a light pink, but then you have gold and you have some blue. I see all these colors, and so instead of just seeing you—“Okay, she’s a peachy color”—there are all of these other colors. That’s how I paint. It’s very intuitive. I just pick up a brush and I’ll have a blank canvas out, and I’ll pick up a color and I’ll start to work.

SCA: So you don’t go with a plan.

Susan: No. If I’m given work to do, like a commission—a portrait’s totally different. Usually, I work off of a lot of pieces. I’ll ask people for many photographs, because usually they live far away. I’ll say, “Send me any kind of photograph. Send me photographs that you think are terrible of the person.”

Because a painting for me is to emulate a feeling, an emotion. You want to capture the spirit of that person. It’s not a photograph. If you want a photograph, then you need a photographer. If you want a painting, you want the painting to emit an emotion, a feeling about that person, or whatever you’re painting.

My paintings, I always want people to look at them and then say, “I want to go there,” or “I want to walk into that painting and just be part of it.” I’d like people to feel a sense of peace and calm.

SCA: You said your mother allowed you to paint on your walls. Was she an artist?

Susan: No. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and she had health issues her whole life from the time I was little. The irony now is I’m the age she actually passed on, and I have a show at the Fenimore [Art Museum].

I give her a lot of credit for allowing me. There were artisans in her family, carpenters. She was a seamstress. She was more of a mentor, I guess, for me, where she didn’t squash [my desire for art]. I always wanted to change the color of my room. So every couple of months, she’d say, “Okay. You can paint it a different color.”

SCA: You started painting seriously when your youngest was born and now she’s 17 years old. What was the in-between and what got you to start painting seriously?

Susan: There were a lot of things. My mother when she passed on, there were a lot of emotional things. Things that I went through in my personal life where I always found painting to be a release of emotion . . . I needed a release and something opened up where [painting] presented itself to me again. Even though I had two other small children and then Elle was born. It was there. So I’m going to paint.

SCA: Do you have advice for aspiring artists?

Susan: The main thing is to not be afraid. And never say, “I’ve got to create something and it has to be a finished piece.” You can’t gain any ground or do anything unless you start. You have to get your hands dirty in order to make it happen.

I also believe there is no failure, because everything, you can learn from, so all you’re going to do is gain more wisdom, and it’ll just take you to another place. Think outside the box, because that’s where a lot of wonderful things in the world have happened—because people have not been afraid, they’ve thought differently, they’ve questioned things.

SCA: Was there a certain point in your art-making where you had to start thinking outside of the box?

Sarah: Times when I wondered, “Why am I doing this? What is the point? Am I really helping anybody?” I’ve learned it’s not always about feeding the physical body, but it’s about feeding the soul and spirit. That’s where I believe the arts—people need that. They need music, they need dance, they need theatre, they need paintings and sculpture and all that, because that’s the expression of the soul. You have to nurture that just like you have to nurture your physical self.

SCA: Tell us about your studio.

Susan: It was the family room when we moved here. The whole house has been evolving constantly—I’m into that too, where nothing is the same all the time. The whole house is a creative palette.

That became a studio space because I gravitated toward the light in there. I don’t paint in any certain light. I usually paint at very odd times. I’ll work on a painting, and then I’ll leave it, and I’ll have other paintings going on.

This has become the creative room in the house, which I found out—this house is from 1862—there was a piano teacher who taught piano in there. And downstairs—this was a boarding house for a while—there was a guy who was a photographer. He was taller and our basement’s really short, so down below this room, he dug out the floor so he could stand and develop his photographs. And my middle child, the older daughter, she’s an artist—her room was right up there [above the studio]. She painted some characters on her walls that are still there. And my husband is into music—he plays piano and he has guitars—he’s in that room now with his guitars. So this is the art corner of the house.

SCA: Why did you decide to show your piece, “Sanctuary”, in the Smithy’s current show?

Susan: I think because it was probably the most representative of my work at this point in time. I didn’t want to put a lot in, because I’m curating the show and I wanted it to be about the other artists. I didn’t want it to be about me.

SCA: How is “Sanctuary” representative of your work?

Susan: I think the feeling. Right away people who know me can look at it and say, “Susan did that.” And the title alone—“Sanctuary”—is restful.

NOTE: The exhibition at the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer St., Cooperstown, NY, has since changed. Learn more about Susan Jones Kenyon here.

– Meredith Sell

Rejected: Lessons from the Drive-Thru

Today, I got my first ever rejection letter.

I’d forgotten that I’d ever sent a query.

The piece I queried?

Lessons from the Drive-Thru, a personal feature I wrote for my Magazine and Feature Writing class last fall.

Family Fun wasn’t interested, but in case you are, here’s the piece:

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 Lessons from the Drive-Thru

“You work here, too?” she asked, her nose crinkled in a look of unmistakable disgust.

I didn’t know how to respond. The answer was obvious from the golden arches across the visor on my forehead. But her face—her sneer—put me on the defensive. How could an adult, the mother of a childhood friend, look down on me for working at McDonald’s?

I forced a smile as I took her money. Then, silently, I bagged her order and held it out the drive-thru window. “Have a nice day.”

I worked at McDonald’s for a year and a half in high school. I’d never wanted to—my older brothers were both shift managers, and I wanted to pave my own way in the workforce—but it was the only place I could work year-round, so I swallowed my pride and applied.

This past summer saw a significant rise in the employment of youth 16- to 24-years-old. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50.2 percent of young people were employed in July—14.2 percent more than last year and, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., the most employed since 2007.

With numbers like this, today’s youth have more than McDonald’s as employment options, and for some, it may be easy to rule out fast food completely and judge those who “settle” for serving fries.

Not everyone sees the value of working at a place known for calories and cholesterol. I didn’t always. But looking back, I realize McDonald’s gave me more than discounted fries and a stack of checks.

McDonald’s Gave Me Confidence: Personal Value Doesn’t Come From People.

It was a November weeknight. The sun had set, and the evening school sports rush was in full force.

As I brought sundaes to the drive-thru station, I saw the bearded man I’d just served storm through the doors.

“You never get anything right!” he yelled, waving a bag of burgers in the air. “Every time I come here, you screw it up. You’re all idiots! Give me my order!”

“Can I help you?” I asked, my voice level.

“You gave me ten burgers,” he said, voice piercing my eardrums like the car horn of an angry driver. “I wanted six plain and ten regular. How is that so hard? You always screw it up!”

I breathed deeply. “What do you need?”

“My order!”

By the time I figured out he wanted six more regular cheeseburgers, tears were welling up. Back in the drive-thru, taking orders and money, I fought back sobs and did my best to greet customers with a smile. The rest of the staff tread quietly, giving me extra help and treating me gently. Eventually, my smile became real.

I learned about value that night: the value of words, the value of me. I learned that words are powerful and can have great impact whether they’re true or not. I also learned that my value is inherent and has nothing to do with what people call me or tell me I am.

Being brought to tears by a total stranger on a November weeknight in McDonald’s made me stronger and more confident.

McDonald’s Gave Me Humility: Agreeing to Disagree.

Andrea: early thirties, with thick dreadlocks, a friendly smile and the scratched-up voice of a smoker. I’d seen her before—at the library down the street from my house, usually rifling through movies or picking out weird pieces of fiction. She seemed nice, but in an unexpected way, a person I wasn’t sure whether to be open with or somewhat guarded. When I worked with her, I figured it out.

Working at McDonald’s was a lot like playing on a sports team. Swap balls for fries and points for happy customers, and the dynamics were pretty much the same. There was purpose, camaraderie and, during down time, laughs and discussions. We’d sing and dance to the background music, joke with regulars and talk politics, religion and—Andrea’s hot topic—drugs.

“Marijuana isn’t harmful,” Andrea said, smile gone.

“If you can get addicted to it, it isn’t good for you,” I said, pulling the box of barbecue sauce packets off the shelf.

She took it from me. “Coffee’s addictive. So is chocolate.”

I shrugged and reached for another box. “I wouldn’t call those healthy.”

“Have you ever heard of someone dying from marijuana use?”

I didn’t answer.

“Well?” She stared me down.

“No, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.” My headset beeped, announcing a car in the drive-thru.

“Find proof and I’ll believe you,” Andrea said, happy to get the last word.

I nodded and put a smile on, arranging my headset’s microphone. “Welcome to McDonald’s. What can I get for you?”

Andrea wasn’t the only one I had serious discussions with. I talked about politics and economics with the guys working the grill, and one afternoon on my lunch break, I explained the difference between Christianity and Mormonism to a fellow crew member.

Through all these instances, I learned that, with tact and a tone of respect, I could share my exact thoughts and beliefs without upsetting people. As long as I presented things humbly, people listened. Even if the reason they argued for marijuana was because that’s what they smoked on break.

McDonald’s Gave Me Patience: You’re Kidding Me, Right?

Seven months after my first day, I was a 16-year-old crew trainer, training a woman in her thirties at the first drive-thru window.

It was my fourth day showing her how to use the register. By now, she should have mastered it, but nothing had stuck. She was as lost ringing in orders as she’d been on her first day.

“What do they want?” I asked, stepping away from the cart of Happy Meal bags I was filling with toys and cookies.

“A double cheeseburger,” she said, leaning against the windowsill.

“It’s on the dollar menu page,” I said, grabbing another handful of toys.

She watched me, not moving toward the register.

I dropped the toys and joined her at the window. “Here,” I said, punching buttons on the screen. “Hit this, and double cheeseburger is down here.”

“Okay,” she said, watching distractedly. “How do you find the total?”

I gritted my teeth. This had to be the thirtieth time I’d explained it to her. “See this?”

She nodded.

“That’s what you hit. Got it?”

She nodded again.

A few minutes later, it was the same thing over again. And a little later, she asked again. It wasn’t sticking, she wasn’t learning, and my only way to vent frustration was to hit the screen with all the force my fingers could manage.

Working with people like this—people I never would have willfully associated with—was one of the most challenging and beneficial parts of my job at McDonald’s. It took me out of my comfort zone. It forced me to be patient and kind when my preference was to throw a fit like an angry customer. It caused me to humble myself and respect those I normally wouldn’t.

And when, as a 16-year-old, I was asked by the untrainable trainee whether or not I was married, it taught me to handle the unexpected and accept the compliment that she thought I had the maturity of an adult.

Why you’ll never hear me swear

“I want to understand why you don’t swear.”

This question came from my co-worker Austin, after a long discussion on whether or not swearing was worth it and whether or not I would ever do it.

[Picture the following happening in a small hometown deli. If you ever wonder what grocery store employees talk about all day, here’s an idea.]

A: People give words meaning, so if you decide they don’t mean anything …

Me: I’m happy with my substitutes.

A: Would you ever write a swear word?

Me: If I was quoting someone or writing a character who’d realistically say it. But if I read those pieces out loud, I wouldn’t say the swear words.

A: What if I pushed you to?

Me: What is everyone’s fascination with trying to get me to swear?

A: Because you don’t! That’s fascinating!

I’m used to the people I work with pushing me to swear, doing almost everything in their power to make me flip a lid — or the birdie — but I’ve never had anyone actually try to understand why I don’t.

Notice that I say “don’t”, not “haven’t.” I’m not claiming innocence. I have sworn. I’ve used the F-word, and called people female dogs, and taken the Lord’s name in vain. But I don’t claim those moments of my life proudly.

Not because they hurt me (they didn’t). Not because they made my mouth feel dirty and my stomach queasy (they did). Not because I got in trouble (I didn’t because I swore when I was by myself).

I’m ashamed of those moments in my life and today I don’t swear because I have a God who would never tell anyone to F— off. I have a God who loves and forgives and graciously gives to those who ask and believe. I have a God who overlooks my wrongdoing even though my wrongs are the very thing that nailed His Son to the cross. I have a God who decided to take me in, adopt me as His own, and never let me go.

Why would I ever want to shame Him by calling Him my Lord and then telling someone to F— themselves?

And why would I shout profanity out of frustration when my savior Jesus Christ hung on a cross and — rather than cursing those who put Him there — lifted His eyes to Heaven and asked His Father to forgive them for they know not what they do

Why would I ever want to smear that name?

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Ephesians 4:29

“[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Philippians 4:8

That’s what I try to do. I try to focus on the good that God has blessed me with and share those things with the people around me. Not the bad. Not the things that go wrong. If I mess up, I remember that God’s plan is bigger than fixing my mistakes and He can use my mishaps to create great beauty.

Is there a need for the F-word or the S-word or the B-word?

No. Not really.