About Ellen Shriner

I write short memoirs and personal essays. I have also completed a workplace coming-of-age story that takes place in 1979 and 1980 during my first year of college teaching. I write on topics of interest to working women, middle-aged mothers, Baby Boomers, people who love to read and write, and those who belong to writers' groups and book groups.

Peering Past the Red Velvet Rope

While vacationing in the Hudson River Valley, my husband and I toured Kykuit, Rockefeller’s lavish summer home; Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s modest cottage; and the Hancock Shaker Community’s very plain dormitories.

Mindful of the red velvet ropes and little fences that kept us from exploring/trespassing, we craned our heads around doorways, peered into corners, and tried to imagine the lives lived there. Despite the tour guides’ colorful stories, sometimes it was hard to breathe life into those rooms. Occasionally, my mind drifted, and I entertained myself by imagining what a future tour guide would say about my home after I’ve achieved some unspecified (and as yet unattained) notoriety.

No doubt, future tourists leaning across the velvet rope blocking entrance to my office will say, “Ooooh, that’s where Ellen used to write! There’s the honey locust she used to look at while she wrote, and there’s the sad clematis on the too-big trellis—remember her blog about defensive landscaping?” 

The tour guide might add, “To preserve historical accuracy, we left the pile of mail on the loveseat. Family stories mention that she used to let it ‘age’ for up to two weeks before she dealt with it.” Visitors will chuckle and some of the more avid ones will lean in to snap photos of the mail pile.

“And over there—a see the cat bed on the radiator? Her cat, Pinky, kept her company on cold Minnesota afternoons. Maybe he was even her muse as she struggled to revise her blogs and essays.” The tourists will jostle each other to take pictures of the cat bed.

The guide will probably point out, “Some of the furniture is antique—like the Mission style oak desk. Supposedly Ellen refinished it when she first moved to Minnesota years before she moved here for good. It was the only desk she ever used.” One of the visitors will probably sigh in appreciation. “We believe that she might have been sitting in that beat-up office chair when she received the call about winning the MacArthur Genius Grant/Nobel Peace Prize/Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.” More clicking cameras and cell phones.

“Next, we come to the music room, where Ellen’s husband composed his opus . . . .” The tourists will dutifully shuffle across the hall to oooh and ah.

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Looking for a Good Book?

WordSisters is adding a new feature—a completely idiosyncratic mini book review/recommendation that will appear every now and then.

The bookThere Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

What attracted me? I’ve read several of Mary Gordon’s novels (The Company of Women, Final Payments) and think she’s a good writer, but I haven’t read anything of hers lately, so I was curious. Also I was pretty sure that Mary Gordon wouldn’t have written a romance novel, which is sort of what the title sounds like—a bit of misdirection.

The premise – When Marian, a woman in her nineties, is diagnosed with cancer, she shares her secret past with her granddaughter, Amelia. Marian is closer to Amelia than any of her other relatives, and Amelia is caring for Marian while she sorts out her life after college.

Amelia envisions that the secret past she is about to discover will be quaint and charming, perhaps involving flapper dresses and smoking. Instead, she learns her grandmother volunteered as an ambulance driver and nurse during the Spanish Civil War along with her idealistic Communist Party friends. Marian’s time in Spain has far-reaching consequences, which affect Amelia.

What appealed to me – Marian and Amelia are likable characters, and I liked the idea of their close connection. Marian’s story dominates the book and her reactions are often surprising, which made her more interesting. Amelia is less well developed but still a believable character (Gordon could have done more with her), has her own coming-of-age moment.

The plot takes some unexpected turns (that’s good), and I learned a lot about the history and politics in Spain that resulted in the atrocities perpetrated by Franco’s fascist forces as well as those committed by the resistance fighters. Aside from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War, so Gordon’s novel illuminated that time for me.

What books do YOU recommend?

6-pound Lament

I wonder what combination of tricks will help me lose weight this time?

I know Weight Watchers works if I just do it. In the morning I have good intentions and I’m determined to succeed, to once and for all lose the 6 pounds that stand between my clothes fitting comfortably and not. Disappear my Buddha belly. By evening, I am ready to sabotage the die-ette and eat some crackers (1 point), a piece of cheese (2 points) or a Dove ice cream mini (3 points).

Whenever I diet, I am setting myself outside my normal eating patterns and entering the Land of Crave and Denial, a place I’m sure to sneak out of or completely bust out of eventually.

Because I know I’m going to want what I can’t have, I’ve ruled out other diets like Atkins, Paleo, etc. There’s no way I’ll succeed by banishing whole categories of food – bread, pasta, sugar, fat, which in my mind equal toast with butter, pasta with anything, sugar in my coffee, ice cream, dark chocolate, salty nuts, potato chips, and anything fried.

I don’t want to diet, and yet . . . there’s this shelf of a belly, the same six pounds I’ve gained and lost for 30 years. Which is stupid. Why do six pounds or a piece of cheese matter?

There’s a body positivity movement afoot to accept your weight and quit worrying about a perfect shape. I admire the young women who feel sexy and at ease in their own bodies and proudly disregard their muffin tops and big thighs. But I am of a different generation, one that was taught from a tiny age to aspire to a perfect figure. Anything less than that and you are made to feel like a less valuable person. Which is also stupid. But I can’t get it out of my head, can’t stop mentally shaving off the extra pounds to see my perfect shape, or more realistically, my pretty good shape.

It’s not that I’m huge. I weight 20 pounds more than when I married and looked good objectively (or is that as an object . . . something set on this earth for other people to look at?)

I’m trim, but not thin. My extra weight isn’t a health issue. For now. But I dislike how I look. I wish I looked different. I’m not aspiring to lose 20 pounds. Just six so my clothes fit better. So far, I’ve avoided buying larger sizes. That’s the line I won’t cross. But if I gain any more weight, I’ll have to.

Besides eating a lot of fish, salad, fresh fruit, chicken breasts, veggies and walking for at least 45 minutes every day, I have all kinds of tricks like—

  • Every day, I can have a planned cheat, like one sweet thing a day—a cookie or a Dove ice cream mini.
  • I don’t eat low-cal chocolate or cheese. They’re a waste of calories and I’m only going to eat more of them until I have the real thing. Instead, I eat small amounts of the good stuff—like one Dove dark chocolate Promise, not five. It really does satisfy my chocolate crave.
  • Have a 4 o’clock snack – a little hummus or a small piece of cheese and 2 or 3 crackers to tide me over until dinner.
  • Drink some ice water or herbal tea at night instead of a mojito, a beer, or a glass of rioja.
  • When the chip crave overwhelms me, I eat and enjoy a 1 oz. bag of chips fromSuperAmerica. A setback, yes, but better than a big bag of chips.

All of that works until it doesn’t. Until I don’t want to do it anymore. Until I crave more salt and sweet. Until abstinence sounds too pathetic and silly. Really? I can’t have a cookie? I really have to feel bad about caprese salad with creamy fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, basil, and good olive oil?

Which is why I have those six pounds to lose. Again. Which is stupid.

An excellent article, “Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner inspired me to reflect on my uneasy relationship with my weight. I highly recommend it.

Keep a Book Journal? Um, Not So Much

I have loved to read since I was in grade school—more than 50 years ago. In the intervening time I’ve gobbled up a lot books. I slowed down while my sons were growing up, but now I can read as much as I like. So much so, that I consciously limit my book intake so I can fit in all of the other things I want to do. Nonetheless, I average about four books per month. Until recently, I never kept a book journal or list of what I’ve read.

Why not? Laziness, mostly. Making a list or creating a system of tracking what I read seemed like homework. Besides, aside from me, who cares what I read? If anything, keeping a list might make me feel vaguely guilty about all that reading . . . when I could be doing something more virtuous and less fun like training for a marathon (oh wait, I’m not a runner).

Learning that Star Tribune books editor Laurie Hertzel never caught on to using Goodreads made me feel better. I’m a Goodreads dropout too (my apologies to the dozen people who follow me).

Her article about book journals describes the various ways avid readers approach book journals. Some people record the title, author, and date the book was read to keep from accidentally repeating a book or for a sense of accomplishment. Others rate the books. The article also mentioned that a few particularly organized readers develop Excel spreadsheets—that’s so not me!

That’s why I’m surprised that in the last two years, I’ve begun making a few notes about my reading. It began as a list of books I want to read, culled from book reviews and book blogs. I’d jot my list in Notes on my phone. But after I read the book, I didn’t always delete the title (re: laziness) so the list began to grow.

My process is still hit or miss, but sometimes I add a gold star next to titles I loved in case anyone wants a recommendation. I’ll put a + next to pretty good books, +~ next to books that were good but didn’t quite work, and a ~ for so-so books. Books that I actively disliked or abandoned get a NOT symbol or a minus (these days, I’ll desert a book if I don’t love it after 50-75 pages—life’s too short). When I’m underwhelmed by a book, I occasionally jot a brief note about it, especially if I’m trying to understand why I didn’t like something that was critically acclaimed.

 

Book notes

Reading is the real pleasure. Some people enjoy making scrapbooks of their experiences or photo albums of their travels. The process enhances their enjoyment. I don’t do either one. For me, the fun is stepping into another world, a different time, or an unfamiliar culture. Getting caught up in a story. Unlike real life, I have no responsibility for the characters and no ability to intervene in their dramas. I’m just along for the ride. The experience is enough.

However, if you ever want a recommendation or my opinion, just ask—I might have a note!

Shopping? Let Me Grab My Laptop!

When I received a gift of money recently, my first impulse was to grab my laptop and shop online. Maybe there are some summer tops on sale. Wait. What? I’m going to shop online despite having a stack of 30% off and $10 off coupons from local department stores? Even though I might have to pay shipping charges? Um, yeah. For me, online clothes shopping is more fun than in-store shopping.

 

It wasn’t always this way. A long time ago, in a land far away, when my sister and I accompanied my mother on shopping trips to department stores, it was a fun excursion (for us, anyway). We all had to change out of our grubby around-the-house clothes and into something more presentable. There was a saleslady and cash register in every department. She’d help you find another color and bring the item to your dressing room—so my mother didn’t have to get completely dressed again or send my sister and me on a mission to fetch another size. Sometimes Mom would treat us to Cokes in the store’s coffee shop, while she had a cup of coffee.

Fast forward to today. On the rare occasion when I shop in-store at places like Macy’s, Kohl’s, JCPenney, or Herberger’s, my chances of finding a sales clerk are slim. Plenty of times, I’ve zigzagged through the store before I spot one several departments away. And this bored underpaid person doesn’t look too happy to see me with my question about another size.

To be fair, I have an uneasy relationship with sales clerks. The ones I remember from my girlhood often looked down their nose at me and my teenaged girlfriends as we flipped through the racks. When I was older and clearly a serious shopper, often a saleslady’s “help” turned into pushy upsell.

Today, if I want a snack to fuel my shopping, I can buy bottled water and a candy bar at the checkout. Not exactly the same as sipping a leisurely Coke while spinning on stools at the counter with my sister and mom.

I do get that customers like me helped change the retail experience. We don’t come because it’s no fun, and it’s no fun because we don’t come.

Nevertheless, if I want to shop for clothes these days, I’m most likely to be sprawled on my bed in my nightgown. There I can happily scroll through several store websites at once, checking for clearance items and considering the possibilities. Maybe the blue patterned one. No wait, what about the green one? And my coffee’s near at hand.