Tag Archives: writing

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April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A boozy brunch between girlfriends, a meeting of coworkers over coffee, a couple splitting a glass   of wine—conversations captured around the city, all serve as fodder and inspiration for Brion Poloncic’s work. In the quiet corners of Omaha’s local coffee shops and wine bars, Poloncic puts pen to paper, his ear tuned into the surrounding babble, creating art that he feels represents those around him and the experiences they discuss.

But don’t expect a still life of women gossiping between sips of their Venti mochas. As a visual artist, author, and former musician, Poloncic is a man of many hats but always remains a creator of thought-provoking and idiosyncratic work that paints middle America in a psychedelic wash.

“I’ve always fancied myself an artist,” Poloncic says. “My art is an affirmation of my peculiar skill set, and it just so happens to make me happy. It’s my own blend of therapy.”

It was through chance that Poloncic was first bitten by the creative bug. After he didn’t make the baseball team, he traded mitts for guitars and started writing music. A fan of everyone from Pink Floyd to Johnny Cash, he parlayed his early love for listening to his parent’s records into seven albums, all released under the moniker “A Tomato A Day (helps keep the tornado away).” A prolific songwriter, his discography is filled with character and colorful song titles, including ditties like “You Little Shit” and “Weirdo Park.”

For Poloncic, music wasn’t enough. He needed to sink his teeth into his next artistic outlet. So when a friend needed help setting up an Iowa art studio, he asked Polonic to draw pieces that illustrated his career. With no formal training or experience, unless coloring backpacks with magic markers counts, he dove in.

Two years later, Poloncic sold his first piece at a gallery in Lincoln. He has also shown work in Omaha and Kansas City and has a collection represented at Gallery 72, all those diploma-yielding pros be damned.

“My art isn’t constrained by my knowledge or training, and I think this makes me naturally less critical of my work,” Poloncic says.

Filled with abstract shapes, haunting faces, and stark use of color, his off-kilter yet original drawings mirror the tone of his written work. Through The Journal of Experimental Fiction, he published his first book Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics in 2012, following this up in 2014 with his second printed work On the Shoulders of Madmen. Both explored concepts of the subconscious mind, and the novel he is currently working on will follow suit.

“I’ll be surprised if anyone can read it,” Poloncic says. “It’s got no characters, no story arc, and isn’t about anything in particular.”

And he admits this is his niche, comparing his art to improvisational jazz or free-style rap where “things just happen.” For whatever he’s working on, he says the hardest part is just getting started. Once that happens, everything else just falls into place, and if he can’t get over a block, he always has another craft to turn to.

“If I stumble off the creative wagon with drawing, I get back on with writing and vice versa,” Poloncic says. “As you work on one, the other comes right along with it.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

On Bread

April 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

It was the story I didn’t want to write—that one about what I call “my malady,” my three episodes of severely restricted eating. The first bout struck when I was 15, when, in response to difficult family circumstances, I limited myself to fewer than 600 calories per day. I calculated and tallied the calories for everything I ate; I chewed and spit out forbidden foods; I stripped down and weighed myself many times a day; I exercised too vigorously and for too long; I awakened in a panic from vivid dreams in which I was devouring doughnuts or pizza; I isolated myself from my friends and no longer ate meals with my family because of the all-consuming nature of my regimen. I lost weight so quickly and recklessly that I stopped menstruating and could barely get out of bed in the morning because of the anemia. But I felt safe and empowered because, through my self-restriction, I’d taken control of my frustrating life and unruly flesh.

Over a decade before Karen Carpenter’s death from anorexia nervosa, the event that awakened many Americans to the dangers of eating disorders, I had never heard of the condition. Apparently, neither had the pediatrician who examined me when I was my thinnest and most unhealthy. He simply told my mother that I needed to eat more, which eventually, I did. When I was 25 and left my family, friends, and hometown for a demanding job in a big faraway city where I knew no one, my malady returned in a less dangerous though more tenacious form. In spite of intensive psychotherapy, this bout of my malady didn’t start abating until three years after it started with the birth of my son.

Most perplexing to me was that when I was deep into middle age, a professor at a state university, the author of five award-winning books, the mother of an adult son and daughter, a homeowner, a church member, and a supporter of various worthy causes, my malady returned. Then, my weight dropped to a number on the scale that I hadn’t seen since middle school, as I whittled down my list of permissible foods until it fit on my thumbnail. Because of age-related changes in my bodymind, the departure of my grown children, and the loss of other significant people in my life, I was heartbroken and anxious. Just as when I was 15 and 25, I tightly restricted what and how much I ate as a way of keeping myself safe from what threatened me. But I couldn’t see what I was doing, much less link it to the two other times when eating too little had been so easy and gratifying. In fact, I didn’t know that I was sick again until my 20-year-old daughter told me that if I didn’t eat more, I was going to die. My blindness to my situation still astonishes and baffles me.

I didn’t want to write the story of an illness that many judge to be a character flaw, a moral failing, nothing but a silly, overzealous diet, or a childish attempt to get attention. I didn’t want to write a story in which I had to admit that I had a condition that usually strikes teenagers and young women. I didn’t want to write a story that would require me to re-enter, through memory and imagination, the dark periods of my life when eating less than my body needed seemed like a logical, fitting response to adversity. I didn’t want to write a story that was an illness narrative and, so, presents a version of the self that isn’t sound or fully functioning.

And yet, I felt compelled to write this story. In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion advises us “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” If we don’t, they might “turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.” What I had forgotten was the woman in me who sometimes found self-starvation and the taking up of as little space as possible so alluring.

To write the story of my malady, I had to educate myself about eating disorders and disordered eating. Eating disorders—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder—are clinically defined and diagnosed, according to criteria set forth by the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Less well-known to most people is “disordered eating,” which Lauren Reba-Harrelson and the co-authors of a 2009 study define as “unhealthy or maladaptive eating behaviors, such as restricting, binging, purging, or use of other compensatory behaviors, without meeting criteria for an eating disorder.” “Other compensatory behaviors” include the use of laxatives, diuretics, stimulants, or excessive exercise to counteract the calories one has consumed.

I went into my research believing that eating disorders and disordered eating are caused primarily by unhealthy family dynamics and the message from the fashion, entertainment, beauty, and diet industries that nothing you are and nothing you’ve achieved matter as much as being thin. Now I know that those are but the easiest explanations and that they trivialize a complex problem. Aimee Liu, the author of Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders, compares an eating disorder to a gun: “Genes shape the gun, environment loads it, and stress pulls the trigger.” This felt true to me, so I went to work researching the genetic, environmental, and psychological aspects of eating disorders. From the studies I read by geneticists and neuroscientists, I learned that those with eating disorders and disordered eating can’t trust their brains to tell them the truth about when and when not to eat.

Several studies, for instance, have investigated variations on the gene for serotonin among the eating-disordered, since when people with anorexia severely restrict their caloric intake, their abnormally high levels of serotonin drop, and they report feeling calmer and less anxious; when those with bulimia increase their caloric intake, their low serotonin levels rise, and they report feeling happier. Another study found that those with bulimia and anorexia have an altered response in the insula, a part of the brain involved in appetite regulation, when given tastes of sugar, which means that they don’t accurately perceive signals about their hunger or satiety. Yet another study suggests that increased activity in the dorsal striatum leads to “maladaptive food choices” among restrictors, meaning that they actually prefer the plain rice cake over the Asian pear and smoked gouda panini.

From my reading in psychology, I learned that certain family structures and personality types were more likely to “load the gun” than others. Hilde Bruch, a psychoanalyst and pioneering researcher on eating disorders, studied the connection between disturbed interactions between a child and a domineering or detached mother and the development of anorexia, while psychiatrist Salvador Minuchin studied how “psychosomatic families,” especially those that are “enmeshed,” contribute to the genesis of eating disorders. For a 2004 study, Walter H. Kaye, the director of the Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research at the University of California-San Diego, administered standardized tests for anxiety, perfectionism, obsessionality, and eating disorders among individuals with anorexia, bulimia, and both disorders, as well as a control group. He found that 66 percent of the members of the three eating-disordered groups had “one or more lifetime anxiety disorders,” 41 percent had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 20 percent had a social phobia. The majority of the eating-disordered study participants reported that the onset of their anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or social phobia had occurred during childhood, before the symptoms of their eating disorder manifested. Even those who had recovered from an eating disorder and were symptom-free “still tended to be anxious, perfectionistic and harm-avoidant.”

I explored various cultural factors that “load the gun.” Feminist theorists, such as Susie Orbach, Naomi Wolfe, and Susan Bordo, see anorexia as rebellion against or an over-conformity with Western notions of feminine beauty and power. Historians and medievalists weighed the similarities and differences between contemporary anorexia and the prolonged fasting of religious women in Europe in the late Middle Ages who sought worldly power and a deeper union with God through their austerities. Accounts by and about hunger strikers, whether the imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army, the American suffragette movement, or those being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, present their fasts as the ultimate political statement and protest.

Clearly, eating disorders and disordered eating are due to a messy tangle of genetic and biochemical factors, family dynamics, individual psychology, and a wide range of cultural influences. Also clear to me is that my story isn’t unique. Experts say that about 10 percent of those with eating disorders are older women. But, says Dr. Cynthia Bulik, the director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina, the percentage is surely higher since most older women with eating disorders disguise or misread their symptoms as being due to a health condition or changes associated with aging, and so they aren’t included in the number of reported cases. In a 2012 study, Danielle Gagne and her research team found that women over 50 are engaged in unhealthy eating behaviors and thinking to the same extent that adolescents are. Most experts that I’ve read see a link between loss, grief, and depression as triggering the onset or return of an eating disorder in women who are middle-aged or older.

The loss and grief triggered by an empty nest, the death or relocation of several others who mattered to me, and an awareness of my own aging caused me to start restricting my diet again in 2011. But of all the factors that loaded the gun, two presented the most daunting challenges to my recovery. The values of hyper-consumerism was one. In “Hunger,” the Canadian writer and human rights activist Maggie Helwig says that it’s no accident that the widespread appearance of eating disorders in the 1960s and the epidemic of the 1970s coincided with the unprecedented growth of the consumer society, which places supreme value on one’s ability to buy goods and services. Helwig, who almost died from anorexia when she was young, observes that by the end of the 1960s, our material consumption had become “very nearly uncontrollable,” resulting in “what is possibly the most emotionally depleted society in history, where the only ‘satisfactions’ seem to be the imaginary ones, the material buy-offs.” Anorexia, then, is the “nightmare of consumerism” played out in the female body. “It is these women,” writes Helwig, “who live through every implication of our consumption and our hunger and our guilt and ambiguity and our awful need for something real to fill us … We have too much; and it is poison.” By not eating, the anorexic tells us that she’d rather be skeletally thin than ingest something that isn’t real or substantial. By not eating, the anorexic causes a cessation in ovulation and menstruation, rendering herself literally unproductive. By not eating, the anorexic refuses to be consumed by the act of consumption. Such self-denial in a culture of plenty is an audacious, radically countercultural act and statement. I extend Helwig’s metaphor to include binge-eating disorder (rapid, uncontrolled consumption with no “compensatory behaviors”) and bulimia (a refusal to complete the act of consumption by hurling out what one has just taken in) as responses to unrestrained consumerism.

The things, services, and diversions that money can buy can’t fill a hungry heart or lessen the pain one feels from a lack of meaning or purpose. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, what we’re truly hungry for can’t be bought. And what I was craving when my malady returned for the third time were a renewed sense of purpose and deep nourishing relationships to “replace” those that I’d lost.

This was easier said than done. The rise of consumerist culture has been accompanied by a decline in the number of close relationships among Americans of all ages. Instead of visiting and confiding in each other, we spend more and more of our time working and, in our leisure time, gazing at screens. Consequently, finding others with the time and desire for new friendships was challenging and at times, disheartening. But with prayer and persistence, I eventually found people who share my values and who enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs.

The other factor that made recovery during the third bout of my malady so challenging was that in my early 50s, I had become acutely aware of the effects of ageism. Because the master narrative our culture imparts about aging is that late midlife and beyond is a time of inexorable decline, marked by deterioration, powerlessness, dependency, irrelevance, and obsolescence, it is the fear of aging and even more, of ageism, that is the inciting force that triggers disordered eating in some women. I didn’t want to think about aging—my aging—and I certainly didn’t want to write about it. Yet, address it I must. In a 2011 study, a team of Australian researchers found that a group of women ages 30 to 60 with disordered eating who participated in just eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy focused on “midlife themes” were still doing better in terms of “body image, disordered eating, and risk factors” at the follow-up six months later than a control group that had not had the opportunity to explore these themes in a therapeutic setting. To counter the effects of ageism in my life, I now collect resistance narratives from women, role models, really, who live their later years with passion and purpose and on their own terms—Jane Goodall, Maria Lassnig, Gloria Steinem, Helen Mirren, Isabel Allende, and others, both famous and not.

Although I was reluctant to write this story, I did find pleasure in crafting Bread. And the act of writing was filled with many moments of self-revelation and one grand epiphany: that there are aspects of my malady that are within my control (how I respond to ageist, hyper-consumerist, and patriarchal values) and some that are not (genetics and brain chemistry: my hard-wiring). Now, I know what I can fight and what I must gracefully accept.

When people asked me what I was working on as I was writing Bread, I reluctantly told them about the story that I didn’t want to write. I found that most were not only interested, but they wanted to tell me their stories about being in the grip of something beyond their control that lead them to eat too much or too little, about feeling shamed or misunderstood because of this, about the familial tensions or social costs or the ill physical effects that resulted from their unhealthy relationship with food and self. Some told triumphant stories about the residential treatment, the counseling, the spiritual practice, the religious conversion, or the supportive loved ones that saved them. But some were in the thick of it. Many were grateful to be given a name—disordered eating—for what they were experiencing and to know that this could afflict anyone of any age and circumstance.

Many were grateful to learn that the reasons they were stuffing or starving were more complex and nuanced than their having played with Barbie dolls as children or having conflicted relationships with their mothers.

The deep story I’ve heard in each of these testimonies concerns the tellers’ hunger for wholeness and fullness. Now, I encourage those who tell me their stories to ask themselves a difficult question—What am I truly hungry for? —and then answer it with courage and honesty. I’m hungry for companionship. I’m hungry for solitude. I’m hungry for reconciliation. I’m hungry for meaningful work. I’m hungry for less busyness or the opportunity to paint or dance or fight for social justice. Then, I urge them to bring that source of nourishment and sustenance into their lives. Some women thanked me for writing Bread before they’d even read it.

When I consider how frankly confessional my story is and how controversial some will find my interpretations of the research, I squirm and second-guess myself. But then I remember that I am safer from relapse because I understand what I can and can’t control and because I’m far less likely to forget, as Didion says, “the things [I] thought [I] could never forget.” And, too, I feel full knowing that people are finding self-knowledge, nourishment, hope, and strength in the story that I didn’t want to tell.

Lisa Knopp, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s English Department. Her recent book, Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, was published by the University of Missouri Press in 2016. Visit lisaknopp.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Sexy & Slow

March 31, 2017 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Is it terrible the pain in Peedi Rothsteen’s voice is musically satisfying?

His honest mix of pleasure and vulnerability blended over incredibly sexy slow jams makes your knees buckle.

Rothsteen knew he was tapping a vein when he emerged on Omaha’s music scene nearly two years ago with a brand new sound unlike any of his other rhythm and blues projects.

Many may know him as lead singer to Voodoo Method or “P. Minor,” a local R&B artist and former radio personality, but he’s since evolved from typical masculine crooning. His delicate vocals now have depth. Musical grit, if you will. And, ultimately, rock influenced his creative trajectory.

Watching the evolution of Rothsteen has been quite entrancing. A lyrical twist intrinsically influenced only by time and experiences.

Music is second nature to the Chicago-born singer, who played trumpet and French horn as a child. He sang for his high school and church choirs. In fact, he got his start as a scrawny 7-year-old who took his church talent show stage in an oversized suit, patent leather shoes,  and a skinny black tie belting out Bobby Brown’s “Roni.”

Music was a persistent influence in his early years, but he stepped into his own in 2006 while working at Omaha’s hip-hop radio station Hot 107.7 FM.

P. Minor became a local R&B crooner who opened for some of the early 2000s’ hottest hip-hop musicians, including Donell Jones, Ciara, Akon, Ludacris, Ying Yang Twins, and Yung Joc. At the time, his single “Can I” was one of the most requested songs at the radio station. He garnered radio play outside Nebraska. His song “Keys to the Club” played in Arkansas, Missouri, and Minnesota.

Omaha’s R&B scene still is relatively small. Only a handful of soulful singers have landed regular gigs or made successful albums. He was tired of being stuck in a genre filled with repetitive melodies and predictable style. So he tried his hand at a new genre: rock.

“I liked the energy of rock music,” he says.

Minor was introduced to a couple of guys who were putting together a band. After a few jam sessions in 2007, the group formed Voodoo Method. With that band he toured and learned more about music than he’d ever imagine.

Voodoo Method featured an unexpectedly good combination of punch riffs, accurate lyrics being soulfully delivered by Minor, who almost always sported a tuxedo shirt and bow tie.

In the eight years performing with the band, his songwriting, voice, and look changed. He stepped into his own distinctive, expressive style. It was multi-dimensional.

“In rock, you have to be ready to take it up another level,” he says. “You have to be able to get out of your level. You have to be a magnetic frontman and push your vocals. And, without being in a band, I wouldn’t … my sound wouldn’t have developed that way.”

Voodoo Method is still around.  “We’re taking our time writing and just exploring music,” Minor explains.

But he got the bug for R&B music again.

“I wasn’t trying to get out or push anything, just exorcise my own demons,” he says.

He knocked the rust off and started producing again.

“What if I take what I’ve learned with the band and some of those experiences and move them over with R&B,” he ponders. “I might have success.”

All the while, he was producing a podcast and doing audio production.

“I wanted to create something new.”

He quietly started making R&B music again, he says. “A few songs here and there and then it started to feel good.”

So, here he is: a promising, ambitious, and talented songwriter and musician with one foot in rock, and the other in soul. This musical metamorphosis brought him to create his stage
persona, “Peedi Rothsteen.”

“Peedi” is a family nickname that stuck and Rothsteen is homage to Sam “Ace” Rothstein of Martin Scorsese’s brilliant and brutal 1995 film Casino.

Ace’s claim to fame is being an excellent gambler, he says. The way he approached the game. He knew all the ins and outs to gambling and could pick a winner.

“That the way I feel about music,” he says. “I know a song, what it needs. I know how to pick a winner. That to me, it’s symbolic.”

Hence, the brilliantly collaborative Peedi Rothsteen.

“There aren’t many things I can do great,” he adds. “Music is one. I work really hard, too. What comes out in the end is something people can enjoy.”

In 2015, Rothsteen released his debut EP Moments Before,  a five-song compilation of incredibly soulful lyrics. The music scene took notice. That same year, Rothsteen took home the Best New Artist award at the 2015 Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.

Exactly a year to the date, Rothsteen released Moments During, a five-track EP follow-up. The songs are full of foot-stomping grooves and fiery grooves vocals. Two songs to wrap your nodding noggin’ around are “Righteous Giant” and “Clap.” Rothsteen hopes to continue his music collection by releasing Moments After this summer–same June 11 date, of course.

His audience is just as diverse. Young. Old. Black. White. Metal. Soft rock.

“I don’t want to be just one thing,” Rothsteen says.

“In rock, you can go anywhere you want,” he says. “Good music will never be bad. It doesn’t matter how you box it up, how you deliver it.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Transitorily Yours

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Amy Lynn Straub

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a new Encounter column focusing on millennial life by Brent Crampton. To share your significant life experiences, email millennials@omahapublications.com

Today is Jan. 7, 2017, and yesterday I walked out of House of Loom one last time. It was a place that I co-owned, DJed at, and curated events for. The scene I left was only a shell. There were no swirling lights or sounds, no Victorian lounge vibes, and certainly no lively, booze-fueled conversations. Just an echo of the life that filled that place for 5 1/2 years remained (along with the bustle of a construction crew ripping a hole in the wood floor).

Loom was many things to many people, but to me it was a lovely little social experiment that blended cultures, creatives, and communities. Categorically, it was a nightclub and event venue, but to the folks frequenting its experiences, it was a place where patrons and friends could mobilize around causes, express emotions, mourn passings, and celebrate life’s contrasts.

The influx of people was so fluid that you could not distinguish it as a straight or gay bar, but simply as a people’s bar. On its best nights, it brought together folks who normally wouldn’t intersect in our city, and lifted us out of the doldrums of our daily lives.

It is rare for a business to shut down without the force of an unpaid bill. As a friend and fellow small business owner says, it is a gift to be able to close on your own terms. And that is exactly what we did. For myself and the other owners, House of Loom was never meant to be permanent. It was a successful social experiment. And it was time to move on.

I have spent the past 13 years of my life fervently dedicated to contributing to Omaha’s nightlife. With this new year, I embark on a new chapter—one where the loud and flashy peaks of club life are swapped for the quiet joy of watching my 1-year-old baby stand on her own for the first time. Now, spontaneous social gatherings are traded for intimate dinner parties (often planned months in advance). Instead of falling asleep as the sun rises, I wake up  with the sun.

It is a different life—one with its own advantages. My prior life could never hold a candle to this new world. In fact, as I write this, my baby daughter is napping away on my chest after a messy meal of liquified plums, apples, and carrots. She is tuckered out, and so am I.

This brings me to why I am writing this column. During this next chapter of my life, I will be taking some time to hibernate in the creative womb. The invitation to turn to the reflective act of writing seemed like a synchronistic opportunity. Instead of only sharing my notions of creativity and thought from behind a DJ booth, I will gladly be able to do so in this space.

Much like my life right now, I am going to ad-lib my writing. Most likely I will touch on topics ranging from the social impact of nightlife (of course), the curiosities of parenting (because I’m new at this), food (because I get giddy when I eat good food), and inclusiveness and equality (because of our new president), all through the millennial lens of a 30-something, post-nightclub-owning new papa.

Here’s to new beginnings.

Brent Crampton previously co-owned House of Loom and is co-owner of Berry & Rye, a bar in the Old Market. A multi-award-winning DJ in a former life, he now prefers evenings spent at home with his family.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

One of Ours

February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“There aren’t a lot of people in Nebraska writing new musicals,” says Roxanne Wach, executive director of Shelterbelt Theatre.

The Omaha theater company is in the middle of its 24th season of producing original work by Midlands theater artists, and Wach reads around 200 original plays a year. But when she discovered the musical Catherland, it stood out from the pack.

A collaboration between Lincoln-based theater artist Becky Boesen and musician-composer David von Kampen, Catherland will open at the Shelterbelt April 21. It’s the latest incarnation of the project after a staged reading was produced at the Red Cloud Opera House in 2015, followed by a workshop at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln.

“I championed the piece because I thought it had such potential. I liked the music to begin with, and that’s a huge hurdle with musicals. I liked a lot of the script and where it’s going,” Wach says. “David has really captured something in the music, and Becky is really talented with her lyrics, and it’s a pretty engaging score.”

It’s hard to imagine a story more quintessentially Nebraskan than Catherland, which is set in Red Cloud, the central Nebraska hometown of writer Willa Cather. The musical focuses on a present-day couple, Jeffrey and Susan, who move from Chicago to Red Cloud. Susan has some reservations about leaving Chicago; but early in their marriage, the couple agreed that once she finished her first novel they would slow down, move to Jeffrey’s hometown of Red Cloud, and possibly start a family.

Boesen explains that when people are experiencing culture shock they go through a honeymoon phase. Jeffrey and Susan are in that phase when “someone crashes into the barn outside and their life starts to unravel as a result, and there’s an immediate life or death problem that has to be solved,” Boesen says. “Willa Cather shows up, too. Susan, the novelist, is not a Willa Cather fan, and that’s a problem.”

That would be the ghost of Willa Cather. Boesen says that a lot of her own writing tends to include ghosts, though the ghosts are not always literal.

“I mean like a missing piece of your heart. Anything that’s missing to a protagonist,” she says. “But in this [show], there are legit ghosts, which is pretty fun.”

Von Kampen agrees, “And I don’t really like ghost stories. I don’t seek out movies or books that are like that, but from a creative standpoint, it feels really good.”

Boesen was born in southern Missouri and von Kampen is originally from Michigan, but they both moved to Nebraska as children. They’ve lived other places thanks to their careers, but are now settled in Lincoln raising their respective families. Boesen and von Kampen are full-time artists and arts educators who met briefly in 2013 while working on another project.
Boesen’s company, BLIXT, is an arts management and consulting firm that produces projects for the Lied Center, Lincoln Arts Council, and other entities. Von Kampen is a musician and composer who also teaches at Concordia University in Seward as well as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Roughly a year after their initial meeting, Boesen talked von Kampen into working as the musical director on a staged reading she was directing.

Von Kampen says, “I remember when (Becky) called, and I was thinking, ‘How can I get out of this?’”

She talked him into working with her, and it went well.

“David said, ‘Hey, don’t you write stuff? We should get together and talk about writing sometime.’ And I said, ‘cool let’s get together,’” Boesen explains.

They discovered their work “sort of sounded alike” and began to share ideas. Boesen had been thinking about her experience as a teaching artist in Red Cloud. Her play, What the Wind Taught Me, ran at the Red Cloud Opera House while on tour, and she says she fell in love with the town.

“You’re driving in Nebraska and all of a sudden you feel like you’re on Mars, because the prairie is like an ocean out there,” says Boesen, who started thinking about Cather and “what it must have been like to live in Red Cloud, Nebraska, in the late 1800s.”

The Nebraska prairie might be considered a character on its own in some of Cather’s work. That striking landscape also has inspired the creative team behind Catherland.

“It’s an exploration of sense of place, what it means to be home, what does it mean to make a commitment, and how does that change over the course of time, and the messy nature of long-term love,” Boesen says.

“I really think they’ve captured something. I’m so excited to be working on it. I just can’t wait for people to see it,” Wach says, impressed with Boesen’s willingness to revise her script. “To have somebody who’s that fearless in the process is a real asset to Shelterbelt in really giving new works their highest potential.”

Wach points out that supporting and nurturing new work by local artists is essential to the vitality of the Omaha theater scene.

“There are very few theaters our size who do new work in a city of our size.” Wach says, “We have a very vibrant theater community, and having new works helps feed it.”

Boesen says she and von Kampen feel lucky to have such a joyful creative process, “We just like making stuff, and we make stuff well together, and we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Visit shelterbelt.org for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Parkinson’s Disease

January 26, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The way Terry Currey looks at it, Parkinson’s disease is a battle of the mind versus the brain.

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2009, Currey describes his brain as an antagonist that controls his body. The protagonist is his mind, which he applies with persistent determination and will power to overcome the malevolent part of his brain.

Currey knows that in the end, his brain will be the victor. “But it’s not whether you win or lose,” he says, “it’s how you play the game.”

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease—Alzheimer’s disease is the first—and usually occurs in individuals after age 60. The disease typically advances over a period of many years and affects movement, muscle control, and balance. Symptoms include a tremor, slow movement, loss of balance, and stiffness of the limbs.

“When the disease reaches a moderate stage, the motor [skills] problems become more pronounced, medications may begin to lose their effectiveness, and non-motor symptoms begin to develop, such as swallowing issues, speech and sleep problems, low blood pressure, mood and memory issues,” says Dr. Danish Bhatti, neurologist and co-director of the Parkinson’s Disease Clinic at Nebraska Medicine.

Dr. John Bertoni, co-director of the Parkinson’s Clinic, is Currey’s physician. “The needs for Parkinson’s patients are very diverse and become more complex as the disease progresses.”

Early diagnosis is the key to beginning proper treatment and helping manage progression of the disease, Dr. Bhatti says. Most people with Parkinson’s can get significant control of their symptoms with medications and a combination of other therapies, including occupational therapy, speech therapy, nutrition counseling, support groups, and regular exercise.

“The benefits of exercise early on, and throughout the disease process, is significant,” he says. “People who are independent after 10 years are the ones who were very active early in the disease. The more active you are, the less likely you are to have severe symptoms.”

Currey has been fighting the disease with an arsenal of tools that include medications, exercise, diet, and mind games. He says exercise has been critical in helping him stay active and keeping his muscle memory in place. He regularly uses his treadmill or elliptical, lifts weights, and participates in other activities like fishing, camping, mowing the lawn, snowblowing during winter, reading, and writing. Each is an important element in staying in the battle, he says.

“Some days it’s not only hard to move, but to want to move,” he says. “You have to have a mission. You have to set your mind to whatever it is you want to accomplish and not let the enemy win.”

To help others with the battle, Currey recently wrote a book, titled Neural Combat: Strategies and Tactics for your War with Parkinson’s Disease, available on Amazon. There were several goals Currey says he wanted to achieve with his book, such as helping individuals newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s to overcome their fear of the disease; to explain what is happening to them medically; and to assist them in developing tools to cope with the symptoms.

“With Parkinson’s disease, you go through the stages of grief and denial, and finally resignation and acceptance,” Currey says. “It took me a while to accept it, but once I came to that realization, I decided that I’m in it to battle this to the end for as long as I have my cognitive abilities.”

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The Death of Cursive

February 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Look closely. Bet you can’t even read it. The strong, curvaceous loops of the “L” intersect just a little too closely with …is that an “o”? It hooks right up with … “z”…something? In it, though, there is a sense of beauty in the slants, the graceful curves.

Too bad this beautiful writing form is practically dead. Cursive seems destined for the same literary fate as the typewriter.

Freshman Colby Gomes is part of that generation that is no longer charmed by cursive writing. On a recent day at Millard West High School, he tossed an example essay back to his English teacher with a laugh. I can’t read this,” he said. “Why not?” “Because it’s in cursive,” Gomes responded.

Reading teacher Diane Eubanks started noticing this trend in her sixth grade classes at Alice Buffett Middle School. Eubanks has been teaching for 26 years, first at the King Science and Technology Magnet Center. She used to write nothing but cursive on the board, and it was a deep part of the curriculum. “Now, I can’t because they [students] can’t read it,” Eubanks says. “It really did surprise me. I do understand it, but it is kind of sad.”

She believes that out of her 200 or so students, only 10 can read and write cursive.

The Common Core State Standards for many public schools have omitted cursive as a necessity even though it has been linked to higher cognitive skills in memory and brain development. Nebraska along with Texas, Alaska, and Virginia has not adopted the standards. Some states such as Hawaii have even dropped cursive completely so students can learn 21st century skills such as keyboarding.

Unlike Omaha Public Schools, which concentrate on cursive writing during the last semesters of third grade, the Catholic Schools of Omaha require an entire year of focus.

Kim Abts, a teacher’s assistant at St. Roberts Bellarmine, was shocked when a public school transfer student still could not write or read cursive in the fourth grade. “I think I’ve taken it for granted,” Abts says. “I thought that was just a normal, natural thing.”

Abts says after third grade, students are not allowed to print. For example, Unlike Eubanks, teachers at St. Roberts still write cursive on the board as well.

Eubanks believes teachers just have limited time to teach handwriting. In addition, most students rarely write anything anymore because everything is on some sort of computer. “Technology has made us somewhat brain-dead,” Gomes says.

Gomes recalls learning handwriting clear back in the third grade at Willowdale, but now he uses it to sign only his name. He believes cursive is just too complicated for his generation. “We don’t want to take the time to make the loopy-doops,” he explains.

Wyatt Spethman, a fifth grader at Whitetail Creek in Gretna, disagrees. He believes cursive is faster plus it looks “fancier.” Spethman boasts his handwriting is good and accepts the challenge to write, “I love donuts.” When he tries, though, he pauses. He explains he does not know how to make a capital “I.”

“I just forgot about it,” he says shrugging.

Reminiscing about her 26 years of teaching, Eubanks still recalls the beautifully scrawled handwriting of former students. “It is a lost art, really,” she says, sighing.

Perhaps this epitaph will be etched into cursive’s tombstone. In print.

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Elaine Jabenis

May 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha native and icon Elaine Jabenis has had a full life and career, from working a stint at the New York Times to being on both radio and television in Omaha. Now, at 93, she’s adding a new job title to her long resume—author of fiction.

Before her first fiction book entitled Georgia’s Secret was released in late February, Jabenis had done other writing, starting with writing for the Omaha World-Herald while on Central High School’s newspaper. When she got married, her husband’s job with the Air Transport Command moved the two to New York City. One day in the pouring rain, she walked into the New York Times Building for shelter, and got her first real shot.

“I thought, ya know, I got nothing to do, I think I’ll go up there and just make out an application just for the heck of it.”

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After getting hired for a temporary secretarial position and working in a few other departments throughout the publication, Jabenis and her husband returned to Omaha. It was here where she worked in theater, radio, television, and, most importantly to the book, fashion.

“As I progressed in my position at Brandeis, I became the fashion merchandising director for all of the stores,” Jabenis says. “I began to realize they were bringing a lot of people in for training for this kind of thing, [but] the schools have had no textbooks. They had a lot of textbooks about merchandising, but not this particular area.”

Jabenis contacted one of her friends in New York, who was editor of Seventeen Magazine at the time, about writing a textbook of this nature. Jabenis was then put in contact with the editor at John Wiley & Sons publications.

“I sold it to them on the basis of an outline and chapter breakdown, but I hadn’t written one word of the book and they signed me,” Jabenis says. “And they signed me on my credentials only.”
The textbook, which the Fashion Institute of Technology bought 300 copies of right away, was used for 10 years, was adapted to fit both women and men in the industry, and was even translated into Japanese.

Jabenis left Brandeis after a 23-year career, and went into business of being her own producer, which gave her control of her time and work. The process of moving from television and textbooks to fiction started 10 years ago.

“It was going very well for awhile, but then I began to lose my sight, and I had four eye operations … four cornea transplants,” Jabenis says. “And every time I had one, I had to stop writing because I didn’t have any vision and I didn’t think there was any way of doing it otherwise so it took me years to get this book out.”

The book is a story about a 22-year-old who works in a department store . She is burdened with an unbearable secret that puts her in a situation to be blackmailed.

“[She is] very successful, but all the time, this secret is keeping her imprisoned. She’s not just trying to assume any place in the sun for herself, but she does try to help others,” Jabenis says. “It’s a romance suspense novel.”

Though much of the background knowledge included in the story stems from Jabenis’ time working in fashion, she says none of the people or places are based on true events.

“Writing a book, I was able to make a composite of characters that you meet throughout your life or you envision or that you have witnessed or that you just make up and of course that’s what the fun is, the making up these people that never existed except in your mind, and they become so real to you, and once I got going on it the characters really take over,” Jabenis says.

Even though her first book just hit the shelves, she already has plans for a second and third book, both of which cover other industries she has worked with in her life.

“I read the concept to someone, to my daughter first, and she said: ‘Oh mom you’ve just got to write this, you gotta promise me you’ll write this.’”

“I thought, ‘Gee, this is great. It gives me something to look forward to,’” she says.

“I’m just so glad I had this urge to do this, and all I really want out of it is to have people open it and read it and say I enjoyed this, I had a good time reading it, and it was informative and I had fun with it or it made me feel, whatever.”

Lydia Kang is in Control.

December 16, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lydia Kang has delicate, tiny hands. A long ponytail. She wears simple jewelry: a couple bracelets and some earrings.

That’s nearly as much detail as you’ll get about the characters she writes. Kang’s debut novel, Control, will be released the day after Christmas. “I would say I write for the impatient reader,” she says with a laugh. “I won’t spend three pages discussing why a certain scene is meaningful. I’ll try to get to the core of what is important and emotional and move onto that.”

A young-adult novel with a sci-fi twist, Control follows a young woman named Zelia as she overcomes her father’s death, her sister’s kidnapping, and her own introduction to a society of misfit teens that the government wants the world to forget.

While Zelia is kind of a blank slate, Kang does allow a couple extra descriptors for some of Control’s more unique characters. “Hex is Asian,” she says, describing a young man with four arms, “and Vera is Latina, although you can’t really tell because she’s green.” Oh, and Wilbert has two heads. He switches his sentience between them so he never has to sleep.

This is the kind of medical-thriller world readers get when it’s provided by a sci-fi fan who also happens to be a doctor. Kang, a New York City transplant, has worked at University of Nebraska Medical Center for the past seven years as a general internal medicine physician. She minored in English and has been published in a few medical journals, but, she says, “I have to credit Omaha—this is where I really started writing.” 

Shortly after moving to Omaha with husband Yungpo Bernard Su and giving birth to her youngest of three children, Kang took a stab at writing some poetry. “And it was really horrible poetry, really bad stuff,” she says, “but I thought, you know, this is kind of fun.”

After a few writing seminars and a couple of what she calls “practice novels,” Kang was ready in 2010 to put her latest idea to the test—a story centered around a young woman living with Ondine’s curse, an ailment that can cause respiratory arrest during sleep. “I was studying for my boards recertification,” she recalls, “and I couldn’t remember hearing about it in medical school. And I thought it was really fascinating and horrific and sad. And wouldn’t it be interesting to have a character with that?” She wrote her first draft in three months, she signed on with an agent in 2011, and a couple weeks later Control was picked up by Penguin.

To make herself more attractive to the publishing world, Kang also began blogging in 2010. But what to blog about other than the challenges of writing? “There are a million blogs out there like that,” she recalls thinking. “Do I have anything else to offer? And I sat there wondering, what makes me different, what do I have to offer, do I have any skills that I can share with people? And then—oh. I’m a doctor.” She laughs now at how completely she had separated her life in medicine from her writing life.

Kang spread the word online that if a writer were struggling with a fictional medical scenario, she’d assist them with authoritative advice. For example, an author might need a character to wake up after, say, a half hour; Kang could suggest a drug that might work in such a situation. She’s advised on medical situations that have been published in other books, and one author even gave her a cameo appearance in a book as Dr. Kang.

For the foreseeable future, she’ll remain Dr. Kang in both literary and real life. Though she plans to release Control’s sequel, Catalyst, in early 2015 and is currently revising a fantasy novel for her agent’s consideration, Kang says it would take a lot to make her give up practicing medicine to write full-time. “I really love my patients. It’s a bit hectic at times,” she admits, laughing, “but I’m managing.”

 A book release party for Control will be held Jan. 18 from 2-4 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village, 8701 Pacific St.

Joe Shearer

August 28, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“I don’t hate on Nikon users,” photographer Joe Shearer declares. “I hope we can all get along. I’m pretty open-minded, but I’m going to blindly put my bias towards Canon because that’s all I’ve ever known.”

Shearer, 27, laughs easily, but at the core he’s extremely serious about his job. As photo editor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Gateway newspaper since 2010, he knows the meaning of hard work. He graduated from Gross Catholic High School in 2002 and went to UNO the following semester. He wasn’t sure what he really wanted to do, but he knew from his experience in yearbook class that he liked photography.

“It all started in my sophomore year of high school,” he explains. “I didn’t really have any extracurricular activities or athletics I was into at the time, but yearbook stood out. I did design, writing, and photography and ended up enjoying photography the most.”

Armed with his first professional camera, the Canon 10D (of course), Shearer started snapping photos of concerts he attended, sporting events, and everyday life. Then he hit a few bumps in the road.

“Whatever I contribute and turn in, I don’t want it to be sloppily put together. It should be award-winning journalism every day.”

“Life is weird sometimes. I was out of school for a couple years,” he says. “I just worked and traveled while learning life lessons and seeing the real world on my own. The whole time I did continue shooting photography. I did a few things for The Reader and Gateway before I went back to school. I never stopped shooting photos. I was just trying to grow up.”

Once back in school as photo editor, Shearer forged ahead with his career. For the past three years, he’s won several first place trophies at Omaha Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism Awards. This year, he won Best Feature Story (video), Best Feature Story (print), Best Sports Photo, and Best Feature Photo in the student category, as well as the Best Photo Essay award in the professional category. He also landed an internship at KETV News, where he’s preparing for a career in photojournalism. His dream job would have something to do with ESPN, music, or traveling, although he insists he’s “not a sports nerd.”

“Whatever I contribute and turn in, I don’t want it to be sloppily put together,” he says. “It should be award-winning journalism every day. There are a lot of talented journalists and artists in the Omaha area. We have a lot of incredible television, radio, and print. It’s a very creative city. If I could be associated with all of the greats in town, that would great.”