Category Archives: Magpie Tales

We regularly participate in the creative writing circle Magpie Tales administered by Tess Kincaide of Willow Manor.

Magpie Tales: Bureau of Missing Verse

A poem has gone missing copy copy copy

After a considerable absence, a return to the Magpie Tales

A poem has gone missing.

The turgid stanzas of a fool who had already wasted half a lifetime waiting on a phone call from the dead.

Poems are but rarefied ephemera, part of the legion of symphonies of soap bubbles and wedding bouquets pressed and dried in a volume of Whitman or Goethe.

Call the Bureau of Missing Verses or just let it float up to the top of the overgrown junipers, dancing like a silk scarf at last liberated from its captors neck.  A clothing accessory that has finally fulfilled its dream of being a flying dancer.

Haute type and prancing fonts swarm in the late spring breezes, just before warmth surrenders to oppressive heat.  The orchestra of cicadas are just warming up before performing their lengthy overture that will last from June to early September.

A poem has gone missing, and its author knows that it was just a placeholder for images and thoughts cast in amber.  It must dance on its own now, perhaps to be found after its long journey enhanced by gusty winds and gulls oblivious to its original intent.



Magpie Tales: Feline Bones and Eastern Windows

Vet training copy

From the latest Magpie Tales

Such mastery of feline ways had rarely been witnessed.

The lean legs and arched back seemed to echo those of his four-legged companion.

A self serving warmth drew in his admirers that was rewarded with a slinking loyalty that could react to a compliment with a sudden dash to the top of the fence.

All the praise could be bundled in a petite thimble and crushed into angel dust that he might sprinkle on a crisp little tea biscuit, or fold a warm embrace and then spit it back — a moist moth retreating from a sweater it had been feasting on all summer long.

His departures were frequent and unannounced, as were his returns greeted only by the ticking grandfather clock counting down the minutes before dawn.  A gold leafed tea cup with a barely visible crack was the only clue he might leave behind.

His life could always be mirrored back into that of the cats who always clustered around him, his appeal like an angora comforter that called out for kneading paws and long mornings of sunning in the eastern facing windows of the dusty chateau.

Magpie Tales: Shabby Chic

Lee Plaza Hotel, Detroit, Bonnie Beechler copy

We get a sneak peak of the September issue in this Magpie Tale

How vested are we in embracing the true wabi sabi?

The empire in decline has its remaining charm.  A wounded lion still ever proper at high tea as penniless earls dish disdain with such polite sneering.

The print medium is on life support.  And how does a woman in her 60s approach the next decade with the appropriate grace?  Are there sunglasses large and dark enough to mask reality.  It has become a post-modern strip tease, like Sally Rand waving her fans though now giving a hint of a glimpse of the face of a woman of a certain age.

Decline and decay are the nurturing elements of the compost bin that give birth to new life.   Such elegant living demise, some embrace it while others fight with fierce denial.  Where, then, are the parting fireworks to let it be known that a final chapter has been written?  Or let this tattered room remain as a time capsule to be discovered at some point centuries later.  Sleeping beauty cannot be roused, and we know that we must lie down next to her at some point.

Magpie Tale: Death or Delight?

poets's sleep 1989 chang hong ahn

A few questions raised in this Magpie Tale.

I am America.

I am the Universe.

I am absolutely nothing at all.

An insecure confidence man, I wrap my selves in the crisp green leaves of uncertainty and contradiction.

I am finally leaving the Pavilion of Sorrow that was hidden behind a riot of unruly  junipers.  There was certainty there, but the time has come to depart.

How much strife is needed to produce exceptionalism?  Will it produce a pearl or just a lump of protein?

Each step forward is leading to death or delight.  It is cruelly glorious riddle.  Don’t always trust the answers.  Most often they are questions in disguise.

Magpie Martian: Alien Apartments

This episode of the Magpie Tales explores the discrimination faced by Martians in the modern housing market.

“Not pets or Martians” the sign read.

“But I’m not a pet!” he chortled.

“Yes, but you are one of…those,” Mrs. Marzak said with her hands on her hips.

“One of what?” he replied.

“You know.  And I will have none of it!  Off with you, sir.”

“No, I won’t leave until you say it.  Why won’t you rent to me?”

“Because you’re a big ugly Martian!”

“Now how do you know that?  Did I put it on my application?  How do you know I am not from Uranus or Jupiter or Kansas City?”

“Well, are you from Kansas City?” she asked.

“No,” he sighed.  “Martian born and raised.  But I did eat Kansas City this morning.”

“See, I knew it.  I don’t need you around here eating people and buildings.  Off with you!” She shook her broom at him and he slowly made his exit.

Before he was out the door, he turned and asked, “By the way, can you give me your opinion about the bike shop downstairs.”

“Off with you.  I’ve had enough!”

Magpie Tales: Getting to Know the Goldbergs

Goldberg Variations

Get out the bratwurst for this Magpie Tale

There was no delicate way of putting it:  even by Bavarian standards, the Goldbergs were an odd family. Proud contrarians, they feasted during Lent and fasted during Mardi Gras.  They sang “O Tanenbaum” each Easter and wore their heavy fur coats during July heat.

Believed to be direct descendants of Johann Gottlieb for whom Bach’s Goldberg Variations were said to be named, they were a musically  inclined family.  But with each generation, their approach to music became a bit odder and by the 20th Century was relegated to sideshows and country fair oddities.

Though unusual, there was no denying the talents of beautiful Lotte Goldberg, a child prodigy and oddity when at age four, she played the harpsichord with the  Goldberg signature reversals, tickling the ivories with her toes and using her hands for the “foot” pedals.

Lotte and her parents were always conflicted by her talents since the Goldbergs were in sharp conflict with the German body culture and celebration of the flesh.  Even as a baby Lotte always wanted to wear her booties and would blush when her bare feet where seen in public.  Thus, they initially booked her performances in burlesque houses.  Though she wore a high necked blouse and floor-length skirt, she felt she was being exploited by showing her bare feet and hands.

She could take no comfort in the accolades thrown quite literally at her feet since she felt she was gaining fame merely by exposing her skin.   This shame was exacerbated when a fan from Stuttgart named Oskar became obsessed by her performances, and began lurching around the Goldberg compound as she rehearsed.

This led to her making the decision to perform wearing stockings and gloves.  She managed to adapt to this new approach, but as the pundits and critics accurately observed Lotte had lost much of he spontaneity and verve that distinguished her earlier work with her bare pedal extremities.

Retiring from live performance in 1984, Lotte signed a lucrative contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and it was always open to debate whether or not she was performing  on the discs “in the nude” or not.  Regardless, her obsessive approach to recording gained her the reputation as being the “German Glenn Gould”

With the dawn of the 21st Century, she shocked the classical world by turning to popular songs and reversing form by playing the keyboards with her fingers and the pedals with her feet.  She can be seen here accompanying Wenche Myhre with a full orchestra from Myhre’s epic tribute to the songs of Liza Minelli.

Magpie Tales: Through the Window

Salient being

Looking into the window in this Magpie Tale

All salient beings peer through a window, at the world outside the fish bowl, or the cake beneath glass.

How many clever monkeys feel the need to save the fish from drowning or the bird from falling?

Salience can bring emotion and even compassion but not always comprehension. Eyes meet and lock but do not always share a common understanding.  Predator or pretty, cake or wolf?

The wave of a hand, two chimpanzees hugging.  We only meet at the edge of spaces; light is only precious during dark intervals.

Magpie Tales: Call the Moirologist!

Doisneau Robert Musican in the Rain copy copy

This Magpie Tale has us singing “Oh What a Beautiful Mourning!”

The highly popular BBC series Call the Moirologist about professional mourners is a reminder that no one understood this profession quite like the Victorians.  And even in the United States in the Victorian era (which, for the record, was not part of the British Empire and had no more right to say they were living in the Victorian Era than they had to say they lived in the Ming Dynasty) it was perfected to an art.

Chicago, still considered to be the new metropolis of the West, proved to be the unlikely center of this unusual industry, and from its establishment in 1879 until it closed in 1931, Northwestern Unversity’s Center for Moriology and Funereal Arts was the center of the industry — producing the nation’s best embalmers and publishing countless volumes on mourning etiquette.  Mourning was an art, and training a bride to be how to conduct herself were she to become a widow was considered far more important than instruction on what to do on her wedding night.


The annual Moirology Ball and Fair held in mid-January — the weather needed to be bleak because sunny spring would just not be appropriate for such an event — drew thousands and was the windy city’s most important event. There were workshops on how to properly wail, vendors selling the latest in in black veils and  ebony lace hankies, speakers on how to properly cover photos of the deceased in the home.


By the 1890s, the keynote speakers had to be of ever greater national prominence.  In January of 1893, months after her acquittal, Lizzie Borden spoke to promote her new book I Never Touched the Ax: My Side of the Story, and the conference had to be moved from the Northwestern campus to the recently opened Auditorium Theater in downtown Chicago.  Crowds lined up for blocks, and scalpers were selling tickets for over $1,000. Her speech gripped the audience with some booing while others shouted “I believe you Lizzie!”


Choking back tears, Miss Borden concluded her talk saying, “What has not been told in all this hoopla is my own loss, that I am now an adult orphan, living in crippling mourning.  And yet I was subjected to that circus of accusations and lies. All I ask is for privacy so I may cry myself to sleep each night and mourn in peace and grace.”

Broom men

A recurring theme on Call the Moirologist is the questioning of the ethics of the profession, and this first came into question with the publication in 1913 of the book How Much Would You Pay for Your Legacy? by Northwestern professor Dr. Creighton Capshaw.  Capshaw argued for the closing of the center which he contended promoted a dubious profession, citing examples of how despised robber barons were cleansing their reputation at death by hiring mourners and speakers who gave praise filled eulogies but never knew the men in their lifetime.

Capshaw’s pleas went unheard by the university brass for years because it was too lucrative a cash cow for the school.   Things changed with the 1929 stock market crash when the center’s endowment went bust and eventually people in the Depression were too depressed to want to learn about mourning and the center was closed, and the land was sold by the university and is now the home of Betty Lou’s Cosmetology College.

Magpie Tales: Aged in Waves

Gloria and the waves

This Magpie Tale is dedicated to all those wonderful people out there in the dark, deep  blue sea.

How far are you willing to dive into your madness to make an appropriate signature for yourself?

Your name on two by three inch vellum was not bold enough for you, so you took to skywriting in cursive lest someone in the city might  miss your visage.

Did you pack enough rocks in your bejeweled opera bag for this leg of your journey? And is there enough of an audience out there to make this worth it?  Or are you just waiting for their collective gasp as you climb ever closer to the edge and will you be able to detect it from the roar of the latest wave that you are certain is making passionate love only to you.

Will the lobsters and calamari make fitting enough witnesses to your dive should you dare to present them a show?  Or, like all high wire acts, is there a retracting chord holding you for your planned rescue?

“Aged in Wood” was that motto for your last performance when you sang to a birch grove that sat in rapt silence and gave you not a single critique.  Now you have the ultimate approval as the roaring ecstasy of your audience cannot contain its enthusiasm, leaping from the audience to embrace you there on your stage.  Wait long enough and it may sweep you away, taking your breath away with thundering approval.

Magpie Tale: Dressing the Stage

Public Presentation of Self

Public thoughts on private matters in this episode of the Magpie Tales

The curious process of the public presentation of self.  How much of it is an act?  How much of it is a process of self expression?

Our costumes.  Our ephemera.  Is hair a prop as much as a hat or a trophy?  Am I defined by my boots or the swagger of how I lean against this car?  If this car is an extension of my self or myself, how much farther may it extend?

The baring of teeth is seen as a “smile”, a sign of happiness and welcoming.  In all other animals, especially other primates, it is seen as a fear grimace or a sign of aggression.  Teeth are an important tool and an important weapon on which the survival of most other species depends.


It is all an act. This presentation of self in the public.  We perform acrobatics on stages or in offices in order to earn an income.  How much passion and self is invested in each act?  We juggle, we climb on top of one another to form a group identity of sorts.  Our dogs have greater empathy and capacity to read us.  Like chimpanzees, humans are inept at reading the emotions of other primates.

Thin dance

How much of the naked self dare we hint at in our costume that we don on the public stage? It is but a dance, and with luck there might be applause or a few coins as the basket is passed through the audience.  With that we may find some modest reward at days end.