Wednesday, December 21, 2011

my christmas song (video at the bottom)

Round these parts, there is a radio station that begins playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving and keeps playing it through Christmas day. Even in a world of on demand music programing through iPods and the internet, it is a comfort to know that when you want to hear something Christmassy, it is as close as the nearest radio. What is not comforting is the fact that no one has been able to come up with a good Christmas song in thirty years. Even Michael Bublé's new Christmas Album is filled with old standards.I personally believe we are better than that. We are creative and can come up with one more song to add to the playlist, and tolerate it being played as often as Feliz Navidad.

Christmas is rough for me. I spent a good number of the last ten years worth of Holiday Seasons playing the single dad in denial to my son. I was tremendously sad being alone, and contemplating the pain of the divorce to him and me. But I was determined my son should still have a wonderful Christmas even though his dad was a wreck. I did not cope with depression by drowning it in alcohol or drugs. I smothered it with decorations and wrapping paper, occasionally sneaking off to the bathroom to sob.

Then I met Paige. She is now my wife and holds the spirit of the season and the adoration of Christ's birth closer to her heart than anyone I know. She loves me very much and does not allow me to be sad over years past. God bless her for that. Now back to the music.

So here it is, my first stab at a song for the season. I want to thank Elvis Presley for giving us Blue Christmas. Here is the flip side which I am hoping someone in the music industry will take a liking to. If you are interested in producing it, let me know. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Saint Joseph

By some accounts, I am a foolish man, I suppose. Yesterday I was in Chicago, following through with my latest latest windmill charging incident, challenging my electric bill in front of the Illinois Commerce Commission. Long story short, somehow my engineering background and usage analysis was able to convince two well paid ComEd attorneys to adjust my bill. Small victory but still, a victory against a utility supplier that has no competition in the state. Not exactly David beating Goliath, more like David prevents Goliath from stealing his lunch money for once.

After that ordeal was over, I settled back into my skin and walked a few blocks on Randolph over to Daley Plaza (recognizable from its appearances in The Fugitive and The Blues Brothers) to take in the sights and sounds of KristKindle Markt. It is a Chicago take on a German Christmas Street Market, and the smells are fantastic, warmed by a celebratory atmosphere. I had about 45 minutes until my train left and planned on a little mulled wine and a potato pancake for lunch while I considered my childhood visits downtown. Back then it was the tree and the store windows on State Street. The windows aren't there anymore. The wine would help with that pain.

I still remember how the tree looked at Christmas when I was a child. Perfectly shaped, it appeared to be the world's largest fir tree, festooned with huge ornaments and thousands of lights. In actuality it was a steel frame with dozens of trees applied to the surface that yielded a perfectly shaped tree every year.

Now the city seeks entrants who need to get a large pine tree removed. By way of a contest, the winning tree is cut down and bolstered up in Daley Plaza. The asymmetric natural look is refreshing but the sparseness of a very mature pine tree leaves a lot of light shining through. Still, Charlie Brown would like this year's tree just fine.

I walked south next to City Hall so I could cross the street at the corner, Pavlovian drips of spit wetting the edges of my mouth. My phone rang. It was my eldest son's school calling. Thinking it might be serious and that I was gonna have to find someone to pick him up, I leaned against a light pole and nervously answered. Turns out it was my son's Principal calling me back. I looked over the tops of the little shops in the plaza across the street and answered, yes, when asked if this was a good time to talk.

The reason for the call was to discuss some extreme bullying going on. My son talked to me about it and when he decides to talk it generally means it was rough for him to take. This time the bullying was verbal and made reference to him and some extreme crude sexual references. I was infuriated when I heard what was said to him. I was not mad at my son, mind you, as he knows what would happen to him if I found out he was speaking to someone else like that. I was instead pissed off that there was a dad out there who failed to put the fear of God into his son for the same reason. This is why I contacted my son's Principal.

Although the popular approach would be to yell at the administration for running a school where such behavior occurs. I took a different path. I offered my help. I asked if there was something I could do by way of petitioning the School Board for the needed resources or if I needed to speak to parent's groups.We had a good talk for about twenty minutes, which hurt because the food smells from 100 feet away were killing me!

As we talked about the ways he planned to address this across several disciplines, I spotted someone across the street. He seemed to be looking at me and standing nearly dead still. He had words hand written on his shirt which were hard to make out and in his right hand was a sign balanced on a fire hydrant. His face was covered with a scarf and I could barely see his eyes. When I was done talking to the Principal, I headed across the street to have a better look.

Once I worked through the midday pedestrian throng, here is what I saw.

By outward appearance he is a father who has not seen his children since 2006. If the sign is correct he is on a hunger strike as a sign of protest. There was no canister to collect money near him. Just the informational clothing, a sign, and his back pack. I do not know his story. I did not bother him out of respect and fear that having a discussion with him might humanize him too much to impact the passers by. He was quite serious about being seen in just this way.

To me it made sense. The way he looked made me remember when I was separated from my son for four months when he was a year old. The world moved quickly by and I was left feeling very much alone and out of place. I got it. As a father, with a heart longing to see his children, he needed to stay just that way, almost motionless and alone.

I considered the implications of being a father. The sacrifice, the loss, the joy, the struggle, the frustration. Here we were, two caring dads, while out there somewhere a father who raised his son to have no inhibitions about bullying mine with sexually suggestive phrases.

I am a Christian, Roman Catholic to be more precise. As a measure of my faith, I think about Saint Joseph, the surrogate father to Jesus, and his dilemma with his bride to be, Mary. Finding out before their marriage that she was with child was a situation to be sure. To turn his back on Mary when he found out would probably have meant her death by stoning as an adulteress. Instead he realized his calling and sacrificed a selfish life for that of the one he was destined to live.

Whether Christian or not, I think all men need to consider his case. A father who does not sacrifice for his children is not a father. We need to give of ourselves. We need to be relentless. We need to guide our children until we are in the grave, and then some. Then we can rest.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

match game 74

Monday night I loaded the family into the car and we headed out to do some Christmas shopping. Sounds simple, right? Of course not. Readers who have children know this never starts nor ends in any way which is favorable. It is the law of nature. It is yin and yang. It is the balance of the universe which needs to be fulfilled and the reason Murphy went into making laws. At least one element of a simple and fulfilling task needs to get fubar-ed or a cataclysmic destruction of the thread of time will be take place.

Let's roll.

We started by grabbing a bite since neither of the parents in the crowd did anything to prepare dinner that night. I suggested a little burger and gyro place that my wife had never been to before. We walked in, bathed in the ambiance of dingy wood paneling and tile floor with stained grout, and my wife asked the standard question, "So, what other women have you brought here?" It is sweet, really. She does not like going places where I took dates before. "Nope Honey, only Jim and I have been here before." She smiled, we ordered, we ate.

Shopping.

Why is it you always get gift ideas when you are in the store you never would have gotten at any other time. Is it because the bottom of the cart looks so far away and empty? Maybe the marketers have done their job well and drilled into our hypothalamus causing us to zombie around the store. Who knows. Either way, we bought crap, that is to say, heartfelt gifts for loved ones. I distracted the boys while the Mrs. got through the checkout and we headed home. Still good, no problems yet.

Driving.

"What's that smell?" my wife asked as I cracked the window open a little. I'll admit it, it was me. Rather, it was my dinner. As I grow older, I am starting to develop little rules to follow which I hope will make living life easier. Here's the newest rule, never order the broasted chicken from a place that specializes in gyros. Expanding gasses were everywhere and I got the not so pleasurable experience of  tasting my dinner all over again. As the culinary terrorism in my mouth and pants persisted, I became aware I had a long night ahead of me.

Anticipation.

With the boys safely in bed, and the salvo of gas bombs having subsided, I briefly considered how I just took one for the team. I was bearing the cross for my family's night out. They relaxed and I payed for their sins. It is a father's duty after all, and part of being a father for me also meant performing husbandry duties. I saw my wife, her precious angelic face in the bedroom, as her eyes narrowed slightly, a signal that I should take my pants off already. My stomach glowered in disapproval of the sexual advance. I told it to hush, close its eyes, and it would be over soon. Daddy still loved his tum tum and would never leave it. Now time to saddle up and get messy.

Afterglow.

So that was interesting. Details aside, my lovely wife was satisfied. So much so, in fact, I am pretty sure she thought when I woke her at 1:12 that morning, that I was going to ask for seconds. Not a chance. Instead I cooed in her ear, "Honey, I think I am going to throw up for a while." And off I went to the magical land of purge. The cool smooth surface of the porcelain, the moonlight through the window, hey tummy, remember me? I'm back for you, just like I promised. Let's do this.

Debt Paid.

5:30 arrived with much soreness and an under-scent of something rotting. Time to get up and get my family moving. Then I fell asleep. I woke again an hour later to the sight of my wife brushing her teeth. "Go back to sleep" she said. I told her I would at least get the boys to school then take the morning off. A half hour later I pulled myself downstairs in minimalist manager mode. Jim was ready for the bus, Peter was getting dressed, and my wife was ready to leave for work. Close enough.

Power Through.

Looking like the guy who invented crystal meth, I got Peter to Day Care, made one call to work, and headed home. A quick shout out to McDonalds for offering a gallon of sprite for $1.00 (+$0.07 tax). Clearly it is community outreach for the gastrointestinaly challenged. I climbed into bed and turned on Game Show Network, trying to recapture the magic of a sick day when I was a child. I long for those days when I was in grade school, staying home, and watching daytime TV with my mom. Back then it was the Price Is Right, Match Game, and of course, Bozo's Circus at noon. Today, in late 2011, I tuned into Match Game 74.

Richard Dawson.

Why can't TV be fun like that again? Match Game had very small cash prizes, a simple set and relied on everyday people interacting with celebrities being silly, witty, and human. And in the middle of it all was Gene Rayburn, looking awkward with an "Aw Shucks" response to the more inappropriate potty humor. I watched three episodes in a row and the same woman won all three times. I even noticed a little mid seventies racism as this woman who kept winning hugged the white contestants she beat but only shook the hand of the black contestant she beat. By the way, Orson Bean was totally flirting with her too. At the end of the third, 36 year old, episode Richard Dawson told a joke with the finesse lacking in the performers of today. Lets see if I can paraphrase:

Feeling Better.

Gene Rayburn said Richard looked a little down and asked if everything was okay. He replied by mentioning something had happened to his wife's favorite cat, snowball. In a concerned tone, Gene Rayburn asked if something bad happened. Richard Dawson explained, "Well yesterday, my landscaper Charlie was cutting the grass when he smelled gasoline. So he stopped and saw the gas tank was leaking. We got a small tray and put it under the leak to keep it from killing the grass while he looked for something to patch the leak. Well, snowball smelled the gas and started drinking it. When I saw her doing that I yelled at her to get away and she was so scared she ran around the yard three times, then straight up a tree. Then she fell down, stiff as a board." Gene Rayburn sympathetically asked, "Aw, did she die?" Richard Dawson replied, "No, she just ran out of gas."

Friday, December 9, 2011

silly

I am almost 45 years old. My left hip gets sore when winter comes around. I occasionally see a floater go by in my left eye. And the music does seem to be getting a little loud these days.

No doubt about it, I am getting older.

And yet, in my heart is a foolish, sophomoric child who still laughs at the simplest concepts. I can not say Kotex without giggling. Seeing Moe poke Curley in the eyes makes me do a spit take. And, when someone breaks wind (that's what old people say, right?) I will guarantee you a belly based guffaw.

Last night after dropping our older son off for a boy scout meeting, my wife and I escaped to grab a coffee at Starbucks. On the way we started musing about the need for new euphemisms to describe when an unknown assailant farts.

I grew up with, "Who cut the cheese?" and "Who ripped one?" These were the standards. Some phrases I have come to know referred to the sound instead of the smell. In Caddyshack Rodney Dangerfield let one fly and asked, "Who stepped on a Duck?" My first wife introduced me to the phrase, "A mouse just drove by in a sports car." Barely worth a smile if you ask me. The humorous and colloquial description of the act of producing flatus definitely needs updating. Here is what my wife and I came up with. I hope those of you who are young at heart will laugh along with us. If you do not laugh, I am betting you are way too serious.

Our Top Ten New Euphemisms for Farting: 
(make sure to say them with appropriate disgust in your voice)

10. Beef: It's Not What's For Dinner!
9. Who's Frying Porkchops?
8. Somebody Yelled At The Pope!
7. Who Licked Big Foot?
6. Someone Plowed Their Pants!
5. Who Shot Dr. Seuss?
4. Someone's Pumping Premium!
3. Who's Playing Ass Harmonica?
2. Today's Flavor: Rancid!

And the number 1 New Euphemism for Farting...
1. Taste The Rainbow!

Stay Silly My Friends.

Monday, December 5, 2011

the worst flash fiction I ever wrote...

This morning I received an email notifying me that a piece of flash fiction I wrote for submission to a literary magazine was declined. This is not a new occurrence as I have written dozens of flash fiction pieces for dozens of literary outlets and they don't always fit what the publisher is looking for. Accepted or not, I am very proud of all of my works, except for one.

This particular piece was born about 15 years ago as an idea for a short film. It came to me while I was riding on a lawn mower and I am pretty sure it was due to the fact that I had not applied enough sunscreen and was not wearing a hat. The idea stuck in my head, though, and to exercise it from my melon, I gave it wings.

Here, published for the general public to view, possibly for the last time ever, is a story called "Demon."

"Nick, please, why? Why should I be the wife who worries about her husband day after day? Why should I be the woman who kisses you goodbye every morning not knowing if that will be our last kiss on earth? Why can't you find satisfaction with a job that comes with a desk? Why Nick, why?”

“Because that's not who I am Sandy. I am a test pilot!”

“You know, Nick, the answer to every question doesn't include the words test pilot.”


“Well for me that is the only answer. It is the core of who I am Sandy.”

“But Nick, I have a bad feeling about this mission. Just once, can't you say no?”

“Sandy, you know I can't. Passing up an assignment is not an option. If I say no to this one they will just get the next guy in line to do it. And then I get to plant myself back at the end of that line and wait. Who knows when I will reach the front of the line again? It could be months before I get a new assignment!”

“And what's wrong with that?! Go to the back of the line! Take your unhurt body and wait here on the ground with the rest of us. Wait for that next assignment with me.”

“Sandy, we've been through this before. I can't be tied to the ground. I belong in the skies. It's why I was born. It's why I have a pulse. It's why I love you and why you love me. If I have to wait for the next assignment you might as well lock me up in a padded room, because I'll go nuts.”

“You mean, you'll go nuts, again.”

“Goddammit don't start, Sandy! What happened back then is in the past. I don't know why it happened, but it did. It was a one time thing that hasn't happened since. I just thank God no one knows about that but you and me.”

“Yea, you and me and half of Sao Paulo.”

“That's in Brazil Sandy! No one in this country knows about it and if you feel any love for me we'll keep it that way.”

“~Excuse me señor, you are so cute and I would like to drink champagne from your lap.~”

“I was out of my mind with stress! Just let it go already Sandy!”

“How can I let it go? You were wearing feathers Nick! Bright yellow feathers!”

“It's called a boa Sandy and wearing it made me feel sexy, which is more than I can say about being with you.”

“Oh big test pilot; look at me with lipstick and eye shadow groping wealthy tourists. Ooo La La! Tell me Nick, do all test pilots wear dresses to feel better about themselves?”

“What if I said yes? What if I told you that three inch heels and a skirt with a slit that runs half way up the thigh does it for us? What if I said I like to wear a lacy bra while streaking through the clear morning sky? And what if I cut out pictures from of silver screen sirens from the '30s and '40s so I can paste them in my scrap book? Would that make me less of a man?”


“Wait, you keep a scrap book?”



“It doesn't matter Sandy. You'll never understand who I am and what makes me tick!”
 

“No, actually, after this conversation, I am pretty sure I know all I need to know about you.”

“Really, Sandy? You stand there with that hideous purse and that discount store belt preaching to me about how I need to change for you. Well let me tell you something sister, its you who needs to change for me!”

“Wow, um, look, Nick, I have had a chance to rethink this whole test pilot thing and I'm starting to think you're right.”

“Really, Sandy?”

“Oh yea. If I were you, I would strap on whatever garter belt feels comfy and head for the wild blue yonder.”

 

“Sandy, you've made me so happy! You really do understand who I am.”

“No problem stud.”

“Are you going to be here when I get back?”

“Um, actually, I have some things to take care of... you know... stuff... so.... I tell you what. Why don't you take your time getting home tonight? Maybe you and the other, ah, guys should go and grab a drink, or cruise the bars down by the river or something. Don't want you getting too overstressed, now, do we?”

“Sandy, I can't tell you how much I an in love with you right now.”

“Odd, neither can I. You just keep that information deep inside where no one needs to see it.”


“You are the best Sandy. I'll see you later dear.”

“Um, yea... maybe.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

where am I?

It is time to get back on track.

My energies are becoming too scattered to make any great impact on the various endeavors I am involved in right now and I feel the best way to re-task my spirit is to identify where my spirit and soul is being applied. What follows is a listing of what I currently see myself involved with. This is not to say these are the only circles in which I stand as only God can determine where I will truly find myself tomorrow. For now, with these 44 year old eyes, this is what I see.

I am a: Husband, Father, Brother, Son, Uncle, Engineer, Photographer, Guitarist,  Politician, Educator, Friend, Enemy, Stranger, Confidant, Cook, Cleaner, Laundryman, Catholic, Dreamer, Wisher, Disappointment, Surprise, Help, Hindrance, Hunter, Gatherer, Polluter, Guide, Distraction, Walker, Seeker, and, I am a Writer.

Odd how I would put that last one in the last position, Writer.

Writing, communicating through the written word, is something I always longed to do but until recently lacked the confidence. I take every opportunity I can to craft words, to communicate emotions, events, and feelings. Even in greeting cards I disdain simply signing my name and instead become prosaic. Making that shift from writer to author would be a dream come true. How great it would be to create a touchstone in someone's life that would return to them whenever they saw the cover of a book. I just had that experience and I will share it with you now.

I recently read a publisher's blog which bemoaned how the picture book market is suffering from poor market research. Publishers were led to believe that parents would not buy picture books with a lot of words since their schedules would not allow fo a great deal of reading to their children. Instead they marketed books with vibrant pictures and fewer words with the idea that parents would prefer to let their children look at the story through pictures, on their own. Apparently they were wrong, since picture book sales are suffering, more than likely due to lack of substance.

My wife is a Librarian for two schools, one a middle and one an elementary. Last week she handed me a stack of children's books to look at because of a story I was working on. It started when our four year old mispronounced the word Santa and a plot line for a picture book story came to my head. That night I put the nanowrimo I was working on aside (well, I wrote one more chapter) and set out on the story for my youngest son (truth be told, the first picture book manuscript I wrote was based on something my oldest son said, so now they both have a book). When I was done, it clocked in at 2,400 words, a length I thought was unusable for a picture book. This is why she handed me the books, because they were picture books with similar word counts, and they would serve as examples to dispel my discouragement. One of those books was the story of Babar the Elephant.

My sister gave me a copy of that very book when I was ten years old. As I looked at it again, my hand gently traced the images on the jacket and I delicately opened the cover. The words, typeface, illustrations, all brought me back to the living room of our house in Elmwood Park, the worn red carpet my parents couldn't afford to replace, the smaller TV that worked balanced on top of the old console TV that didn't, the palm tree in the corner, the sheer curtains over the windows, the room my grandmother died in.... these images, feelings, they were all with me once more. Time that had escaped me returned and it was beautiful.

How I would love to be the person who could return that favor to someone else, to be able to restore their youth and wonder through the printed word and the smell of paper. I dream and hope that someday I will. I have a children's story under consideration with a publisher in London and another entered in a contest at the MeeGenius website (see story by clicking here). I would like each of you reading this to think of a story that meant something to you when you were a child, and dream of passing that legacy onto others. To be able to do this is what I want.As the Smiths sang, "Please, please please, let me, let me, get what I want..."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

the thanksgiving I will never forget

My world was unsteady in the Autumn of 1999.

My first wife and I had separated in the latter part of July, 1999. She moved back to Atlanta with our 15 month old son whom, because of the extensive traveling required, I was able to visit only once a month. The summer was unbearably hot and as fall approached I daily considered the prospect of having to fashion a life for myself while adapting to being a father living 900 miles from my son. I tried to maintain as normal an appearance as I could in my public life. I worked on the yard, painted the master bedroom, and wrote letters for my estranged wife to read to our child.

A few notable happenings during that time included my appointment to the County Board of Health in September. In October, my brother fell from a tree while removing a large dead branch with a chain saw, knocking himself unconscious. My mind was so disturbed by the isolation that I slept every night with the radio turned on and could not shower with the bathroom door closed. As I said, my life was unsteady.

Autumn pauses for winter to ready itself around the time of Thanksgiving, the penultimate American contrivance of a family themed holiday. I was not looking forward to the day. My sister in law was cooking for all of us, my mom and dad, brother, sister, and nephews. When morning broke, I thought of my wife and son so many miles away, spending the holiday without me, wondering if I would ever feel normal again.

The morning was grey and humid, with a temperature in the low 50's. I struggled to sit still until the 1pm scheduled meal time to no avail. I was on edge, wishing the day would be over before it began. To pass the time I went into the yard and walked through the leaves on the grass, smelling the sour sweetness of the colorful decay. Traffic was light on the street in front of my house that morning, which is odd, being that the road is a rural highway used as a primary east-west thoroughfare in northeast Illinois.

Lost in a familial reunion daydream of some sort, I was surprised by an older Jeep Cherokee pulling into my driveway. The rust all over the Jeep was visible from a distance. As it pulled closer I could see two occupants in the front seat. On the passenger side was a young woman. The driver was a young man. The car stopped about 50 feet from where I was standing. I expected I was about to meet someone who had lost their way, seeking directions to where they needed to be. This is usually what happens.

The young man bedecked in a faded army green jacket and knit hat approached me and said good morning. He told me his name and apologized for having to ask a favor. He told me he and his girlfriend had driven all night from Colorado and were heading for his father's house in Antioch, Illinois, a community about 10 miles away from my house. He also said they were about to run out of gas, no gas stations were open, and they had no money to purchase any. He asked if I had any gasoline to spare.

To fuel my karma, whenever anyone runs out of gas by my house, which happens about once a year, I gladly provide one or two gallons meant for the tractor. I told the young man I would be glad to help and asked him to come to the garage with me. When I got there, I was surprised to see that none of my gas cans had any appreciable amount of fuel in them. Now it was my turn to apologize for not being able to help him. "Sorry," I said, "but I don't believe I have any gasoline except for the half gallon meant for the chainsaw." For those unaware, the chainsaw fuel is pre-mixed with oil and shouldn't be used in an automobile.

Confidently, the young man said, "Sir, I'm pretty sure that gas will get us home." "By all means," I told the young man, "take that gas." He walked with the can back to his Jeep and poured it into the tank. He handed the can back to me when it was empty and said, "Thank you very much sir." It was then I saw how very young this boy was and how frail his blond, equally young girlfriend looked. They were both dressed with hats and scarves and gloves, seeming to indicate the car had no working heater. I wished the young man, good luck. With that, he got into the car and turned the key. With an angel watching over those two, that Jeep started right up. A single wave from the end of the driveway, they were gone.

That day I thought about family and what it means. The need to be with family at the holidays sent those ill equipped children halfway across the country without enough money to make it but with a determination unequaled by any adversity laid in their way. I thought of providence, being in my yard at the right time, and I thought of my son, wondering who was watching out for him.

I went to thanksgiving dinner, and appreciated the food, kith, and kin more than ever before. When I returned to my house in the afternoon, there was a message on my answering machine. It was my wife, asking if I would come to Atlanta to bring her and our son home. The next day I stood in a terminal at O'Hare Airport waiting to board a Delta flight to Hartsfield Airport, hoping the pilot wasn't going to need to stop to borrow any gas.

Just this year, I finally resigned from the Board of Health, twelve years after my initial appointment. Back then my first wife and I reconciled but the following October we separated again, this time our son staying with me full time. Fourteen months after that we reconciled again. In another twelve months after that, we divorced, my son remaining with me once again.

I wonder what lesson in family I learned from that young couple in 1999. Hopefully they made it and are still out there somewhere teaching others how desperately we all crave to be with family at Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Casey Kasem

"Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."

Many of us recognize this as the weekly sign-off phrase of Casey Kasem, host of the syndicated weekly radio program, America's Top 40. Not sure if the program is on any more or not, and quite frankly I do not care. I was just surprised that I remembered it after all of these years.

Now back to the countdown....

I recently learned the difference between being a writer and being an author. An author gets paid for their work. A writer does not. Simple. Authors are capitalists and writers are hippies. Let's say, however, that a hippie dreams of buying things someday without using money stolen from their "old lady's" purse in the middle of the night. Then, they must embrace the dream of capitalism.

So as an aspiring capitalist looking to shed my hippie skin, I dream of being a paid author. It wouldn't have to be much, just something so my Dad would stop looking at me in such an unsavory manner when I tell him about my writing. Worst part of that arrangement is that I work for my Dad, whom I am sure would rather I stick with the capitalism I already know, that of a Licensed Professional Engineer, instead of trying to get paid for my ability to string words into sentences.

Today was a sort of mixed metaphor for me. I had to meet with a client to deliver some plans. Not something I always do on a Saturday morning, but this is a good client and we want to show the extra care that is due. The project is located in Wisconsin, near the Yerkes Observatory. After I was done on the site, I took a little side trip to the observatory to soothe my eyes.

Established by the University of Chicago in 1897, the observatory sits on 77 acres in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. At the time of its creation, it was close enough to Chicago to allow communication with the University staff while far enough away to be unfettered by the lights, and indeed the ground vibrations of the city. It also was accessible by train and I am sure quite a few professors took advantage of the beautiful location near Lake Geneva to entertain friends, families, and the occasional student 'wink!'. Aside from the atomic bomb, I would say the Yerkes Observatory is the nicest thing the U of C ever did for mankind.

Driving to the observatory is a trip back in time itself. A long straight road leads from the highway to a single flag pole and two large cedar trees. It is here a large looped road begins and ends. The cedars and other trees mask the existence of the structure from full view. Easy to imagine are horse drawn wagons bringing supplies down this very road at the time of its opening. Not easy to imagine is the building that awaits, should you decide to proceed on the loop.

I am always impressed when I drive up, noting in my head that the Yerkes Observatory is what all observatories should look like. It is a statement in mankind's ability to rise above, to live within nature and yet show that we are more than what nature can produce. We build, and dream, and look outward, away from what we are comfortable with, to learn.

Here are some photos I captured of the outside I would like to share with you, so you may also be inspired at what we can create.


 I sit now, with darkness having fallen, in my living room. My wife is with me, a fire is in the fireplace, and I think about my writing, hoping soon everyone will. Perhaps it will be for my readers like a trip to yerkes, not knowing what to expect, then pleased within by what they find. 

I am not sure who the Yerkes Observatory is named after, but I thank its namesake. It seems you dreamed once, that you tried reaching for the stars, and did very well.

I hope my time will come soon.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

don't worry marcus...

I think I am a cool uncle.

And for me, part of being a cool uncle is remaining connected with my nephews. My oldest one is named Franz. Oddly enough, his brother is named Hans. Together they remain locked in time as an homage to mid-80's late night comedy. I will speak more about them another day, and how they acted as surrogate brothers to my son as I nearly drown in my initiation to the world of single parenting.

Let's talk about Franz. In fact we have talked about him before, and how he just got a full ride to NIU. And when you talk of Franz, you need to talk about his friend Marcus.

Marcus is an interesting character. I know him best as a showman. He is the guy who gets the hook role in the school play. He is the guy who is always on stage, always ready to perform. Put him in a costume and he is good to go. I like Marcus. I also happen to be friends with him on Facebook.

Since I am over 20 years his senior, I try to remain in the background, not spoiling his social media vibe. Very occasionally, though, I feel the need to step in and take the role of older and wiser mentor. Yesterday was one of those times, and as I think back on it, I believe the advice I gave him is something we should be teaching all of our teenagers.

His status post yesterday was, "Sometimes life sucks." Was it bad grades, stuck up girls, a traffic ticket, inappropriate body function resulting in an embarrassing encounter with stuck up girls? Who cares? Well, actually, I cared, and was very curious, but it would have been inappropriate for me to ask. Instead, I stepped up to the mound and did my best to throw him one right over the plate.

My comment, the response to his, "Sometimes life sucks" post, was, "nest part of that statement is sometimes." (I misspelled best - the b is next to the n - nest is where a bird lives - spell checker didn't get it)

Honestly, sometimes life does suck. Sorry teens, it's true. Life is often defined by its sucking moments. Life can also be defined by the way it chains together sucking moments into one large year of moments that suck. Suckity-suck-suck! And after the sucking is over, life shows you how wonderful it is. The key is not focusing on the past, on the moment where su met ck. Head up, keep walking, and put the suck in your rear view mirror. Life is a pendulum. It swings back and forth. 

Hopefully Marcus will think back on that simple response I gave him. Hopefully he will pass it onto his friends, parents, children, and such. Life does suck, sometimes. Then the sun comes out, fate takes your hand, and everything is okay.

I sure hope he wasn't talking about something pedestrian like the cafeteria being out of tater tots.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

what is wrong with you Kim Kardashian?

I have two sons, one is 4 and the other 13, and I love them both very much.

A simple fact of the universality of life is these boys will end up as adults in a world far different than the world that welcomed me into my 20's. For my sons, their 20-something world will in part have been crafted by Kim Kardashian.



With her 72 day marriage now ending, we have been inundated with call after call of, 'what is she famous for?' Well, here is the answer. She is famous for the ability to weasel herself into our social consciousness better than Colonel Tom Parker did for Elvis. And just when you think her fifteen minutes is up, she tosses a couple more quarters into the meter.

Thanks to the internet and the website for the entertainment show "Extra" (almost as pointless as Kim Kardashian) I have some fast facts about that [insert your own pejorative slang here] Kim Kardashian.

She was born in 1980, when I was in 7th grade. She had her first acting role in 2006 in the television series “Beyond the Break.” Kim makes $5.545 million every year (seriously, WTF?). In 2007 she posed nude in Playboy magazine (almost tame, really). Kim considers singer/actress Jennifer Lopez to be her style icon (you just made the list J-Lo!). Deep-fried Oreos are Kim’s favorite sweet (I guess we know where the boobs and ass come from). And, Kim’s favorite movies include “Clueless” and “The Notebook (any clueless joke here would be superfluous).

Not covered on the "Extra" website is what occurred in October of 2007. This is when it first came to light that a pornographic home video existed featuring Ms. Kardashian and Singer Ray J. (his net worth is $18 million). If one were to chart the Kardashian meteoric rise to fame, 2007 would be the year when her line went from flat to vertical and the attribution goes to her ability to remain in the camera shot while diddling Mr. Ray's "J" (junk).
I could sit behind my keyboard and wag my finger in an accusatory manner at Kim but honestly, that would leave several fingers pointed back at myself. I have seen the video featuring Kim and Ray J. I have clicked on the "Slide Show" link on web pages covering crap that happens in her life. And when it was announced she was divorcing Kris Humphries (who seriously looks like that werewolf guy from the Twilight movies) after less than three months of marriage, I got to a TV with a cable news network as soon as I could.
 
Shame on me. I am the 99%, a member of the dull witted masses who fuel these kinds of stories and give credence to celebrity bad behavior. In fact, I am pretty sure that as I write these words, there is a cookie in my computer that is recording my blog as mentioning Kim Kardashian. Subsequently a market research firm will collect that information and for a fee pass it on to media consultants who will convince media outlets that Kim is still a hot item and guaranteed ratings gold! And in the end, what will my reward be? You guessed it, more Kim Kardashian!

And while I am on the topic of Kim Kardashian, I was listening to an interview she gave to an Australian news outlet where she defended her getting married the Mr. Humphries as her following her heart and not just a publicity stunt. According to her, she believes in love. Well, allow me to be the little boy who points out the Emperor has no clothes, Kim (yup - I tied public nudity in a fable to Kim Kardashian and as it turns out, not such a stretch after all). 

Kim, look at me. Marriage is no more about love than taking a bath is about shitting in the water. Marriage is about commitment. Feelings of love will wax and wane over the years and the commitment of a true marriage is the bridge that crosses the valleys. If you were not willing to stick it out with Sharkboy (that kid grew up to be the werewolf in Twilight) you shouldn't have married him in the first place. But you didn't know that, did you? And that means you won't be able to give that example to my sons, will you? 

I am counted among the divorced. I was married in 1994 and divorced in 2005. Before becoming engaged that first time, the woman who would be my wife actually said to me that she didn't care if we were so poor that we had to live in a double-wide trailer, she just wanted to be my wife. Twelve years later, in our four bedroom house she let me know she didn't love me any more and wanted out. It figures.
So allow me Kim, to pass a lesson onto my sons, and all of the other kids out there when I say, if you find yourself married and are having a hard time warming yourself to feelings of love for your spouse, don't worry, panic, or freak out. That is a sign that everything is okay and you are in a real marriage. Fake it until you make it, try a little tenderness, work on the sexual intimacy, don't be too sensitive about your boundaries, and be more respectful of your spouse's, and it will be okay. That is what my parents taught me and that is all you need to know about marriage. Mom and Dad have been married now for 60 years. It was on their 50th wedding anniversary that I went to see my attorney about a divorce. Irony is a bitch.
Suzanne Vega has a song called Frank and Ava. It is about the very short marriage between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener, marked with almost constant arguments and fighting which many observed was a result of their passionate love for each other. It is one of my favorite songs of hers. Here is a portion of the lyrics.

He's so true. She is too. 
She says I love you Frank,
and then they drank,
all night. What a fight.
He says it isn't me,

you're thinking of

She's cool. It makes him cruel,

And they needle till,

the jewels go raining down,
upon the ground.
She says it's not enough,

to be in love.

Not enough, to be in love.

Not enough, to be in love. 

How right you are Suzanne. 



Monday, October 31, 2011

a flash of Halloween fiction

The master always wore gray.

The master would come into the room at no specific time. There was no way to predict when he would enter. No noise he made predicated his arrival in the room without windows before he placed his hand on the latch and turned the knob.

The master was always neat.

Never was he seen needing a shave. His teeth were always clean as if brushed directly before opening the door. Every hair on his head was in its place and his shirt tucked into his trouser waistband in such a way that it never came undone when he crouched before his servant.

The master was thorough.

At least once a week he would bring photographs. Well composed and colorful, the glossy paper images showed a child's life taking place. After the master showed them to the servant, he would hang them on the wall in neat organized rows and columns as a reminder of why the servant was there.

The master lacked certain skills.

After he showed the photographs to the servant, the master would inspect the wounds of the servant. Many were infected and covered with bandages, stained with the failed process of human healing. With makeshift ointments he would attempt to soothe the servants injuries. Too often his attempts yielded an unsavory result which attracted flies to place their offspring on the wounds to clear the rotted flesh.

The master was direct.

“Remember,” he would say to the servant, “your child depends on you. Without you staying right here, he will be deprived of all which you want for him. I see him every day and can perform acts more unspeakable than you can imagine. You are his hope and salvation.”

The master controlled the servant.

After showing the servant the pictures of the child, after tending to the servant's inflamed, red, weeping sores, after reminding the servant of his position of subservience, it was time to for the master to gain strength. From the master's vest pocket came an elegant silver fork, festooned with scroll work designs along the length of the handle and a utility knife, as dull in aesthetic detail as the fork was rich in design.

The master was patient.

“Just a little nibble,” the master would say as he looked over the body of the servant. When the master chose the spot, his eyes would open wide and his nostrils flare. Delicately he would apply the fork to the servant's skin, watching as the individual prongs dented the surface as they held the flesh in place. The razor edged knife followed closely, carving a crescent through the skin. As the edges of the incision drew away from each other revealing a pulsing stream of blood, the master would say to the servant in an appreciative tone, “Nice and rare, just as I like it.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

dust marks the years

Tonight I was lucky enough to have dinner with a large portion of my extended family. Besides the joining of several generations and backgrounds, there was good news to share. My nephew announced that one of the schools he applied to, Northern Illinois university, offered him a full ride academic scholarship. needless to say, I am one proud uncle. Of course, sitting next to my nephew was his younger brother and my son, both of whom will probably never be offered such an opportunity.  So I was sure to pay them compliments throughout the evening as well.

For those unfamiliar, Northern Illinois University is located in DeKalb, Illinois, a town known more for agriculture than education. It is nestled just southeast of Rockford at the northern point of the geographic Illinois landscape that is as flat as a plate. I love my nephew and I love agriculture but I fear the two would not make a good pair. My nephew is a little too sophisticated for that. Regardless, it got me thinking about that time in my life and how it all seems so far away.

I attended Loyola University in Chicago between the years of 1986 and 1990. It was the best option I had, seeing how I was asked to leave the University of Illinois after two academically horrible semesters. And in retrospect, getting kicked out of that high school with ash trays was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Instead of living at home and commuting to school every day, I relocated to what is arguably the best city in the world, my sweet home, Chicago.

Rogers Park became my home. A block from Sheridan and just north of Granville, I was at 6235 North Kenmore Avenue. I learned to take buses and trains and ride my bike. I went to little vegan restaurants on dates, watched the Lake Michigan waves break on the shore, and even chased after a mugger once. I fell in love and out of love and got drunk on warm humid spring nights. I was born again, unto myself, surrounded by art and theater and lectures and books and buildings.

Being a communication major meant attending a good deal of classes at the Water Tower Campus. Got to love the Jesuits, only they would have property on the Gold Coast. To get there meant a train from the Loyola or Granville stops to the Chicago Street stop. There was where I met Mary. More specifically, there is where I met Mailbox Mary.

She was an old woman, wiry and thin, who appeared and smelled like she was homeless. She would wait alongside the Dunkin Donuts near the stairs that led from the subway. Sometimes she would just panhandle. Other times she would jump out at young men and try to grab their crotches yelling simple phrases like, "Lemme hold your pickle!" Either way, it only took one walk past Mary before you learned to walk on the outside edge of the sidewalk.

Why Mailbox Mary? The story was that Mary was a prostitute earlier in her life and by most accounts, a profitable one. She was also said to be smart. Her policy was that clients place their payments for her services into an envelope which she provided, already stamped and addressed. She and her John would arrange an encounter, he would place the payment in the envelope, they would walk together to the nearest mailbox and send the payment, then complete the deal, so to speak. The police could not arrest her because she did not get paid for the sex at the time it took place. Her attorneys were always able to argue that no matter how immoral her lifestyle was, sending money through the US Mail was not against the law.

It was also said that Mary contracted syphilis through her profession which subsequently brought on her mental illness she exhibited years later on the street, the first time I met her. That was twenty years ago. Mary is probably no longer with us. I wonder if I am the only one who remembers her now.

My son recently took an interest in film photography. To answer some of his questions about how these "old" cameras work, I brought down my Minolta SLR camera that I had in college. My parents bought it for me to use in a black and white photography class I was taking. Once I learned how to use it, I took it every where.  I photographed buildings, nature, anything that captured my eye. I even had a friend ask me to photograph her in a series of poses for submission to a modelling agency.

Now that camera sits on a shelf in the house, collecting dust. It is the characterization of my vision when I was in college. Once it was done, it was done. School's over, move on. Thank God for my son and Walgreen's. I bought 35 mm film tonight and loaded one up. I was surprised to see my fingers still instinctively knew all of the controls and the meter battery still had some juice in it. The first photo I took was of my beautiful bride, posing seductively in a low cut black top. And the best part of it all, is remembering the field of vision. I pressed the shutter release, the mirror dropped, the film was exposed, the mirror returned, and I saw her again in the eye piece.

No digital display to see what I just captured. This is art. This requires knowing when to pull the trigger, knowing when the moment is just about to be right so when the light is cast onto the film, you will get exactly what you wanted to capture. Using this camera, you never see the moment the picture is taken. For that, you need to wait. I can close my eyes right now and still see the image of my wife, right before I pressed the shutter release all the way down. Her eyes, her skin, everything is still there for me. It is a moment in time I did not waste. I cherished it. This is a gift digital photography does not offer us. Now we push a button and look to see what we got. Then we take another, and another, and another.

Our lives have become a series of unsatisfying moments when viewed through the digital age. I am so glad I have learned to see again through my analog eyes of old.

     

Thursday, October 13, 2011

intestinal fortitude

A week ago I twisted my knee while muscling around a rug shampooer rented from my local hardware store.

I decided to shampoo the rugs because my wife's father and step mother were coming up for a visit and I felt the spots and stains left behind by two careless children reflected poorly on my qualities as a husband and father. At least that's what I thought. Turns out I was being vain and I would pay for it.

The first shampooer (laughing as I write p-o-o-e-r) did not work, so back into the car it went, more lifting, turning, straining. The second one worked fine but halfway through the living room my knee started to hurt. Like a marathon runner who collapses within sight of the finish line after crapping their pants, I worked through the pain (no, I did not crap my pants) and finished the job.



The next morning as I tenderly struggled to get to the bathroom on a very sore knee, I wished I had just crapped my pants instead. It was as though someone inserted pencils into my knee joint and I could feel them rolling around as my knee would bend. Being the ignorant man I am, I did not take it easy on my leg. That weekend we walked all over Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and by the time we were done, my knee felt like Tonya Harding's boyfriend had worked on it. 

Sunday afternoon I finally rested. I put my leg up on pillows, watched the Bears Game, and hobbled back and forth to the bathroom and kitchen as needed. Monday morning I was back on the stump, wrecking my knee. Stupid, right? You bet! Why, oh why, do I not just get off of my knee already? Simple answer, I have stuff to do and apparently my elevator doesn't go to the top floor!

Oddly enough, at the same time as I am ignoring the tender insides of my knee, I read a facebook friend's post about her physical therapy issues. I asked what happened and she informed me this was damage she incurred in Baghdad during an insurgent rocket attack. She was diving for cover and tore her pectoral muscles in the service of our country. Then she, an air force lieutenant, asked how my knee was. It was embarrassing. Bin Ladden's cousin rips her pecs apart with a rocket while the Rug Doctor took out my knee. Why couldn't there have been an IED in that rug shampooer. That would have been a story to be proud of.

I soldiered on. If she can make it with a war wound, I was gonna make it with my carpet injury.

It is definitely Autumn in Northern Illinois and time to button up the house and get it ready for winter. This includes splitting wood for the fireplace and stocking the freezer with beef. What a perfect way to therapeutically heal my knee, right? Nope!

Tuesday night my wife was at a dinner meeting with her enrichment team from school, so I was on my own with the two boys. This meant a trip to Culver's for Butter Burgers, then the Super WalMart for groceries, unload at home and get the youngest in the shower, jammies, stories, and bed, then pester my older son to make sure he had a lunch made and homework packed. By 9pm, I was sure my knee loved me enough to murder me in my sleep. Pass the glucosomine and stay out of my fall-zone everybody!

Finally my very patient and very beautiful wife came home and found me in a mood. Honestly, my knee had the mood, I was fine. She and I had a terse conversation. There was nothing even mildly newly-wed about it. She was pushed away by my attitude and I was fed up. We sat at our adjoining desks looking through the day's affairs when she asked, "Are you gonna query that agency I sent you?"

How dare she? How dare she ask me to pursue my dream when I was injured and looking for soothing and maybe a little sympathy sumpthin sumpthin that required me to simply lay there on a couch or ... well I was looking for sympathy. "Oh, no, I haven't queried them yet." was what I said.

She had e-mailed me the agency's website two weeks before and I ignored it. I just wasn't in the mood. She thought the agency would be perfect for a picture book series I wrote but I am consumed with a YA novel I am working on. Why would I want to complicate my life with another rejection, right?

"Oh, they aren't taking picture book submittals right now." she said to her macbook screen. Great. My knee is throbbing and not comfortable no matter which way I hold it and to top it off, my picture book series she fell in love with has no party invitation. I responded, "Should we query Silver White?" She paused and thought for a moment.

I continued, "We have to give it some legs. It's only been to one agent." Then to my surprise she said, "You know, I am starting to like that one a little more." This is an odd turn of events. She had not been that fond of this work before. Maybe she was fixated on the picture book series and hadn't considered this piece until now.Silver White is a new-age science fiction novella I wrote which started out as a flash fiction piece I couldn't trim to less than 1,000 words.

Now at 30,000 words, it is a little light by some page count standards but the story is intriguing and it would be a great foundation for a series. The publisher's website prospectagency.com has a very comprehensive submission form which got me even more behind completing the query. This one asked me questions about my submission. One of the questions was, what's my favorite line from my work. Another one asked what I though a good tag line would be for the book.

How exciting! They made me and my wife bond over searching for my favorite line and coming up with a slogan that would catch the eye and imagination of prospective readers. My wife and I reconnected as she poured over a printed copy and I scanned my laptop. As a topper we both admired my tag line, "Pray you have a soul."

Thank you guys! Thank you so much for taking my mind off of my knee pain.

Thank you for giving me back what is inside of me while forsaking what is outside.

Who said agents only bring bad news?

Friday, October 7, 2011

steve jobs, ad nauseum

I had a unique opportunity yesterday to do something I tend to shy away from.

As a writer, engineer, father, and husband, I do my best to keep my decisions and activities away from what is popular or expected of me. Case in point, spring break 2004.

Early in my trials of single parenthood, I decided on a spring break destination for my six year old son and me. We had been on our own for a couple years and never taken advantage of the time off before. Popular destinations for families with kids are Wisconsin Dells water park resorts or Florida and its theme parks. Not me. Not my son. After a great deal of consideration, we were headed to Detroit! And what is in Detroit that would call us bachelors in? Why, a museum, of course (doesn't everyone go to a museum over spring break?). Which museum? The Henry Ford.

Let me explain why this destination was chosen. First, living a little north of Chicago, the drive is easy for us, just an eastward jaunt on 94, stop before you hit the Ambassador Bridge. Second, The Henry Ford has a curator staff second only to that of the Smithsonian. Third, the museum just unveiled its latest acquisition, the Rosa Parks bus and this was something I wanted my son to see more than a guy who calls himself an actor because he walks around a theme park wearing a Mickey Mouse costume. The bus is an everyday experience for a child and seeing how a simple gesture could turn it into an artifact of national significance in the American time-line, is perhaps the most real  way to explain what things used to be like for Blacks in our culture. Forget the water slides and roller-coasters. Spring break was going to mean something that year, and it did.

The bus itself was found behind a barn, rusted, interior missing, all the glass broken. Still, even in this rough state, someone realized its importance and saved it. The two top bidders were the Henry Ford and the Smithsonian. Henry Ford won. Restored to look exactly as it did that fateful day, the bus is the crowning jewel in an exhibit on racial intolerance which includes disturbing images and items like actual drinking fountains with the words "for whites only" set in the porcelain glaze.

My son got to sit in the actual seat Rosa Parks sat in which got her arrested. There was a recorded presentation on the bus and he and I sat next to each other listening. During that audio presentation a family entered the bus. They were black. Jim and I got up from the seat where Ms. Parks sat and gave it up to that family. As token and trite as it may have been, It made me feel a little better about myself and hopefully it gave my son something to look back on. I could not do anything to make up for the racial intolerance which took place before my time. All I could do was try to make sure it didn't happen in my son's time. Little did we know that six years after that event took place, I would become a father again and my son would become a brother, to a little boy from Haiti who is most definitely black.

Yesterday I broke my rule about doing what is popular or expected of me. I accompanied my wife into Chicago. She was seeing her doctor for a regular checkup. Her physician's office is located a few blocks away from the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue and when we were done with her appointment, we decided to satisfy our curiosity and headed over to have a look. Earlier in the morning, local news coverage of Steve Jobs death the previous evening was delivered by reporters standing outside of that very store and each one highlighted the "makeshift memorial" on the sidewalk. Now was our chance to see it up close, to share with the rest of the world in an activity that was for one day, popular.

The crowd outside of the store was quiet and it seemed they did not know how to react. The weather was perfect and shoppers hurried by, inconvenienced by the onlookers blocking their path. Inside the store people shopped and did not present themselves to be in mourning. Outside were news cameras and press photographers angling to find the perfect shot of people observing the "makeshift memorial." There were flowers and notes up against the glass. Some left newspapers with the headline of Mr. Jobs passing facing up.

Like everyone else, I scrambled to find my emotional base in this shared experience which I was trying to connect to. I read one of the notes, "To the craziest one of them all. It's been an honor to share this planet with you." I couldn't honestly say I could get on board with that sentiment. Was Steve Jobs crazy? And if he was, are we talking Steve Martin wild and crazy guy crazy or was it more of a, why did we take the kids to Chuckie Cheese, crazy? I took a picture of the note with my Motorola phone while my wife used her HTC phone to do the same. No iPhone for me or her. Maybe it was in bad taste so to do when new iPhones were just steps away. 

We turned the corner after seeing the "makeshift memorial." I still didn't feel connected so I posted a message to facebook proclaiming I was at the memorial to Steve Jobs at the Apple store. Twenty-four hours later and still no one commented. This is why I don't do what is popular. It can be so fulfilling. So I write this blog.

Far more intelligent people than me will eulogize Steve Jobs and they will say the right things and everyone will nod their heads in agreement. I will nod too, thinking of how Steve Jobs drive and passion in business benefited a Windows user like myself, as Microsoft continued its pursuit of a more Mac-like experience. And for that Steve Jobs, I will miss you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

i am atticus finch

A life free from pain is not a life. What you choose to do with that pain, to possibly turn it into something positive, is not something everyone takes advantage of.

I have heard that in US Army circles there is a saying, pain is fear leaving your body. If that is the case, I must have had a lot of fear inside of me. I grew up as the child in my grade with the weight problem. I was asked to leave the first university I attended. I gave up on my dream of a career in radio when the need to earn a living grew too great. I spent a summer without my toddler son when his mother and I separated. A year later I began my journey of a single parent when she left us both. Of all the pain I have felt in my life thus far, that last one hurt the most. Accordingly, it also brought the most growth I ever experienced in my life.

No one tells you as a newly wed that whatever plans the two of you have for the future and for each other, you should be ready to do that on your own. I wish someone had sat me down and said, Ed, I know you might want a child or two out of this marriage but just remember, if you get them, you might end up doing this parent thing solo. Then again, if my wish had come true and I had been warned, I might not have gone through with it and I would have lost out on the beauty, joy, triumph, and frustration my son brought me as he carved a new maturity into the tree of my life.

In The Matrix, Neo had to chose the red pill or the blue pill. Red opened his eyes and blue would have kept him where he was. Lucky for us, he chose the red pill and we got to see him shoot the snot out of an alternate reality with slow motion bullets ripping the air which surrounded him. If given the choice, I probably would have taken the blue pill. My creator had a different path for me and he placed the red pill on my tongue, thrusting me into the reality where tiny bits of flu induced vomit and teenage rebellion rip the air which surrounds me.

This is where literature became my Morpheus. The mind numbing task of leaving the selfishness of my 20's behind was too great for me to handle on my own. I had a child to raise who had his mother split one month before his fourth birthday. I had a house to take care of and getting to preschool on time so I could be at work on time and getting home to make dinner and pack a lunch and do laundry and get into bed without crying too much so I could do it all again the next day. I needed a role model and that was when I reintroduced myself to Atticus Finch.



Most of us had to read To Kill a Mockingbird at some time or another in our educational experience. I presume that our instructors had us read it as an exposure to racial stereotypes and bigotry and how no matter the outcome, it is the noble course to confront such ugliness. The simple writing style and engaging story have always stuck with me over the years but it was not until I had a few minutes to spare after putting my four year old son to bed that I really connected with the story.

I clicked on the TV and searched through the channels. I paused on Turner Classic Movies when I saw To Kill A Mockingbird was on. And I stayed up the next hour and a half to watch. There he was. Atticus Finch, my Morpheus.  He was a man who unwittingly became a single father. He was educated and a leader within the community. He understood human nature and was respectful of his children while remaining a person of authority to them. And as if that was not enough, he could kill rabid dogs better than the sheriff. Granted my life had no Calpurnia to take care of the house and such, but that was okay. I could be the Atticus who knew how to make dinner.

Last night my son, now 13, asked if he should expect fewer presents at Christmas this year because of how bad the economy is. Before I answered, the first thing I thought of was Atticus answering Scout when she asked if they were poor. Hopefully I was able to channel Harper Lee's characterization when I said to him, "Well, the economy is bad for everyone, son. No one has a great deal of extra money to spend these days. However, we need to focus on what Christmas means first and then open whatever gifts we might find under the tree."

I am Atticus Finch.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

powerful words

Writers write. Whatever.

I love my wife dearly. She is the complete package. She has curves that a Porsche couldn't hang onto, a mind so complex it can take on and finish a Sudoku puzzle and the Word Jumble at the same time, and a room-filling laugh that is the most genuine besides my own I have ever heard. She also has a wonderful mastry of words. This is the best quality I could imagine in anyone and a component crucial to a good relationship.

In my first marriage I felt stunted. I was married to a woman who, honestly, did not have a large vocabulary. It hindered her confidence and turned her inward in social situations. Worst of all it was a barrier to our communication which directly affected our relationship. I could not use my everyday vocabulary to talk to her as it made her feel as if I was showing off. She passed if off on me having a College degree and her having only attended High School for her verbal insecurity. I felt it was a more pervasive situation of a lack of importance on verbal expression in the culture in which she was raised.

Although divorced for six years now, I still see her lack of confidence when locked into a conversation that she feels unprepared for. She has good ideas inside of her and yet they get strangled on the way out due to a lack of training in how to articulate them. During the waning days of our marriage, when divorce was imminent, it became much harder for me to talk to her because she became suspicious that I was going to use my words to hurt or manipulate her. Admittedly there was some of that in the marriage. I was able to use my words to greater effect than she was. No fight was a fair fight for us.

Today it is my wife (the second one; should I call her the new one? is there a term for that?) who holds the upper hand verbally. She knows what to say and when to say it to make me laugh loudly, cry softly, yell in frustration, and even want sex more than dinner. I can hold my own when we do the back-and-forth (not talking sex here) chit chat but as far as making my point, any victory on my part is a sympathy loss on hers. It's okay, though. I can still write circles around her.

Since writers write, I suppose the talkers talk. Either way, being able to share your ideas is important for so many reasons. And as a writer I would like to share something my talkative wife once said that still makes me laugh to this day.

It was in the Autumn of 2010 when she and I were participating in a 5K run/walk (we walked) cheerfully called the Pumpkin Chase. It takes place every year in Lake Bluff, Illinois, and starts at the school she worked at when we first met. The course is beautiful, tracing streets along Lake Michigan and passing by so many historic and charming houses. While we walked along briskly she would tell me about the ones she liked, which she was familiar with having taken many walks by them during her lunch breaks.

There was one house in particular which she said she was fond of and wanted to show me. As we got closer she pointed it out. It was a sort of large cottage with steep sloped roofs and modest windows. In a word, it looked cozy. I was informed by my wife that an older woman lived there alone and the most endearing part of the property was her well maintained English garden that took up almost all of the yard space between the street and the house.

When we were finally close enough to get a good look, instead of a garden, I saw tall strangles of vines and overgrown wilted plants that seemed to choke and obscure the walkway to the front door. It was not what I pictured as an English garden yet my wife kept looking at it as we walked by. Could she really think this was attractive? As I pondered if this was the kind of garden, nay eyesore, my wife would want in front of our house, she turned to me and said, "Obviously she's had to let some people go."

It was like hearing Groucho Marx say, "Pardon me while I slip out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini." I laughed then and I am laughing now as I write these words. Thanks honey! You sure have pretty eyes and a sexy vocabulary.

  

Friday, September 30, 2011

hard boiled

I recently got an e-mail from my editor-manager-wife. In it was a link to a blog site which offered a 250 word writing exercise based on one sentence. In case you are interested in giving it a try, look here oasis for YA

Most of what I put on this blog has to do with me and my struggles as a father, writer, whatever. Yesterday I blogged about trying to find the courage to put my writing stuff out there for critique and criticism. This particular exercise was perfect for that, plus it came with an additional challenge, to write outside of your comfort zone. My zone of comfort is dialogue. I love to have my characters talk and love reading good dialogue. For me it is like overhearing a juicy conversation on the bus that makes you miss your stop. Accordingly, my writing style I chose this time, included no dialogue.

Here now, for your reading pleasure, is the 250 words I came up with for the exercise noted above, based on the sentence, "The stranger peered over his shoulder, before quickly stepping into the building."

_____________________

Carson stepped into his manager’s office and fell into the chair next to the window. He closed his eyes and exhaled a deep breath through his dry lips. Fumbling in his jacket pocket with his right hand, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and shook them gently until one filter was exposed. He gripped the lone cigarette with his lips and pulled the package away from his face. He shoved the package back into his pocket and fumbled again, this time removing a disposable lighter.

The stranger peered over his shoulder, before quickly stepping into the building. Behind him the woman followed. Inside, she shook out her hair and pursed her lips against each other. She kissed the stranger goodbye, leaving lipstick on his cheek. Looking up at the ceiling, she untied the belt of her overcoat and parted the lapels, exposing her bare hips. Gracefully she stepped down the hallway, stopping in the manager’s office doorway.

Carson drew in deeply on the cigarette, his fingers crossed around it while covering his mouth. He exhaled smoke. Then he heard a sound by the door. Assuming it was his manager, he looked over. He stared at the half naked red-head with her left hand on her hip holding her coat open. In her right hand he noticed a revolver. His last thought was, ain't marriage grand.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

what price cuteness

What does a writer do differently from everyone else that defines who they are?

Here is my situation. I am a civil engineer who in his middle ages has decided to turn back the clock and pretend it is 20 years ago and time to decide on a career. It is not so much pretending, I suppose, as it is simply karmic realignment of my stars. And in this realignment I hope to find that part of me I left behind when the weight of the world compelled me to give up on my dreams of making a living in the creative arts and instead put my nose to the grindstone. I remember being in my car and making the call that shut it down.

It was a call to Nick Farella, general manager at WXLC-FM in Waukegan, Illinois (the birthplace of Jack Benny, no less). I had missed two of my part time shifts and decided I was not getting the enjoyment out of radio broadcasting that I once did. The truth be told, I had been passed up for a full time spot recommendation at another radio station in Norfolk, in the same ownership as WXLC. They needed me here because I could fill any time slot at short notice. I was too valuable to pass upward but was making $5.00 an hour. I told Nick I decided to hang 'em up (referring to my headphones) and I would drop my front door key off in the morning. That was it. My dream smoldered like tossing a wet blanket on a campfire. I sank into a marriage where I wasn't happy, a job that paid the bills, and a life less fulfilling


In retrospect that was the best thing I ever did and I am pretty sure it was divinely inspired. Thank you Holy Spirit for putting me into a depression that stepped me off of the path leading me to a life in Norfolk, or Albuquerque, or Laramie, where if they still have live radio air personalities any more. they only make $50k a year. I regretted it for a while but honestly it was probably the other choices in my life that I regretted more, like my first marriage. Oh well, that, as they say, is that.  

My life needed a little break so I could learn, so I could become. 1994 was a long time ago. Today presents far more opportunities for me. For three years I have been writing again, as I did in college. And with the more I write, the more I feel it becoming a part of me, and with each passing day, I feel the title of author coming my way. And as an aouthor I envision myself as an artist who paints with words.What is it that artists do anyway?

As Jimmy Johnson, former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, might say, if you are going to talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. To figure out how authors act, I needed to find a place where I could observe them and perhaps adopt some of their behaviors in an effort to walk the walk. As opposed to the bohemian communities filled with aspiring artists familiar to a time long ago, today I have found the artists congregate in the virtual world. Although I would someday like to find one of these places where authors hang out and collaborate and tell loud stories and smoke opium and paint images of legless prostitutes while drinking glass after glass of absinthe...maybe that last part was more Moulin Rouge than reality but still, you get the point.

Today I follow over one hundred authors, agents, and editors on Twitter (I also follow the Hot For Words feeds and I would like to assure my wife it is just for the education one receives about the english language). I also follow several blogs and often find myself looking busy at work by writing flash fiction pieces for contests featured on those blogs. And even though I am out there in the electronic ether, following and being followed, still I am having a hard time standing up and saying with confidence that I am a writer. I talk the talk but I am having a hard time walking the walk. Time for some reflections on lessons learned in life.

Before meeting my dear wife three years ago, I played the role of single dad on the prowl. Although I was doing alright in the sins of the flesh department, there was one woman who vexed me so that I sought counsel from my therapist. She was a barista at Borders (of all places) and she was quirky and fun to talk to and edgy; totally my type. The problem that kept me from talking to her was my realization that she was younger than I was. When I talked to my therapist he gave me a great piece of advice, which was, there are no what ifs. Therefore, I could not say to myself, what if she laughs at me and says I am old enough to be her father. Who cares? There are no what ifs.

I did talk to her and we did express this idea that we might date, until she found out I was 40 with a kid and I found out she was 18. We did laugh about it and as relationships go, that one was pretty good. No one got hurt and we only remembered the good times. And best of all, I lived in the moment, failing to find the what if.

This past weekend I had my hands full. My wife was getting her hair cut so I had the boys and errands to run. Eyeglasses needed fixing, a trip to the butcher was in order, and we needed to get to the post office to apply for a passport. Our youngest, Peter, was giving me the lesson on the non-existence of the what if.



At the eyeglass place he played loudly with the toys not caring who he disturbed. At the butcher he caused such a fuss that the owner's wife kept giving him candy for hugs. And at the post office he ran around in circles laughing, which caused the clerk to give him the end-roll of some express mail stickers. That kid cleaned up with swag and didn't care what anyone thought.

Maybe that is what I need to do. Maybe I need to stop worrying how other authors act, and just be myself. We will see, because being myself usually involves sitting in my PJ's in front of the computer, laughing at what I have just written. Now I just need to find a legless prostitute. I'll ask my wife. She's good at finding stuff.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

what the world is coming to

The ability to creatively express one's self is apparently genetic, at least I hope it is for the sake of my writing career. This is all about my son and how gifted he is in expressing himself artistically. I am pretty sure this creative dynamic he possesses came from my chromosomes and not his mother's. Trust me, when she and I were married I never spent a night where I wasn't covered by some gaudy floral print bedspread or comforter. An eye for color and design she did not have.


Besides being a creative fiction writer of children's picture books and half of a YA novel, I am also a photographer, and I play guitar. My son, on the other hand, is a drawing kind of guy. And all of this came out because he was diagnosed with ADD when he was in second grade.

Being the conscientious single dad I was at the time (I am still pretty conscientious) we embarked upon non-pharmacological therapy with Dr. Brian, a wonderful psychotherapist. After 15 weeks we saw tremendous progress and by the time we completed 50 weeks, an IQ test revealed my son had a genius verbal score.

All that was good and fine as he could concentrate better in school and was less forgetful, but what I saw was so much more. He took on an interest in drawing, not just drawing but creating. He became a much happier child when there was blank paper in front of him and a pencil in his hand. It was amazing to see the things he would use to express himself.

When he was eight years old we attended a local art event sponsored by a hospital. It was called Art in the Barn (called such because the hospital was built on property that contained a working farm and the administration kept the old farm buildings for use by their physical plant staff). He loved looking through all of the artwork on display. He especially loved the kids tent which was filled with easels, paper, and paint, where kids were allowed to paint whatever they wanted.

My son was ecstatic and couldn't wait to create. I watched over his shoulder as he painted a still life landscape. That's right, he set out to create not a stick figure like those around him, instead he made a painting. As his painting developed, he drew a little attention from some parents around us who instructed their children to do what my little boy was doing.



Most of the others lost interest in imitating him or in sitting in the smelly tent and walked away proclaiming they were done, bored, and wanted to go home. My son, on the other hand, was too focused to be uncomfortable, and didn't stop until he covered every square inch of the paper with color.

In the end there was a blue sky with a cloud whose underside was reflecting a pink hued sunset and a large tree with mature deer standing underneath, and a meadow as the backdrop. He had set out not to paint something, but to create a painting and he did great. In fact the painting still hangs over our fireplace.

Now that he is thirteen, I have run out of boxes in which to keep all of his art. I have decided it is time to leave the amateur behind and enroll him in formal painting lessons. Of course, being a teenager, he is refusing. Now I am the first to admit as a parent you need to pick your fights and I think this is one I have to pick, especially after seeing his assignment book today. Here is a picture of a portion of it:

 You may notice writing in purple on the right side of the page. That is from me in response to what I saw drawn on the paper. Here is a closeup.

Plain to see, if not a little small, he dropped an "F" bomb in his assignment book. How incredible to me that he figured out a way to swear that actually engaged me as a viewer. He drew a swear word. Guess what son, you just earned yourself painting classes. I love my boy and that brain of his.

So, back to the genetic thing.... I am pretty sure I have my son's genes as I am never more at peace as when I am writing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

in the moment

Fate smiled on my wife the day she met me. I am not at all shy about saying how much I have improved her life and I am more than willing to accept the credit. This morning is a prime example of why she is so lucky to have me around.

The day started with our youngest and a wet bed. My wife needs to be out the door by a specific time to beat the traffic so I am in charge of getting our two sons dressed and out the door for school. If there is bed wetness, I am the Brawny man pro-tem.

Shortly after her discovery, my lovely wife (and I do mean lovely, she is the most special woman in the world and has helped me so much as a writer) tried to get out the door with her laptop, a cup of coffee, her purse, a lunch box, and two books, all in her hands. At least one of them was going to fall. Turns out it was the coffee, closely followed by a book, both of which fell onto the kitchen floor (just inches from the door too).

I felt so bad for her. She knew she didn't have time to stop and clean it up. She could not even afford to pull the paper towels. Cleaning up that mess was all about me being there for her and honestly, that is when I feel the most like a husband. I told her to go and I would get it. The quicker I got her to stop looking at the coffee seeping under the freezer and into the area rug, the less guilt she would feel and the lesss counselling I would have to do later.

Plus, it really isn't that hard to clean that little stuff up. I was a single dad for 10 years before meeting my current wife. Once you get a cleaning rhythm down, it all comes so easy. Paper towels to arrest the seeping, then dry mop then wet mop, roll the carpet back to dry and done. Easy peasie coffee squeezie.

I got the linens in the wash early enough so I could say goodbye to my 13yo before he headed for the bus, then made my coffee and breakfast while waiting for the cycle to complete. Got little guy out of bed and brushing teeth while the wet stuff went in the dryer. Bada bing!

And just to make it look easy, before I took the little guy to school, we even managed to pick some grapes from our vines in the back yard. Can fathering be hard work? Yes, only if you are doing it right. Love is really love when it hurts. And today I felt the pain.

I have a therapist friend who says the best thing to remember about pain is that you have to be alive to feel pain. Julianna Hatfield sings a heart that hurts is a heart that works. They both may be right, yet they both fail to capture the essence of love as an expression through service. It is the very best way to say you love someone.

So here is to you dear, my lovely wife, who through your humanity gave me a way to say I love you.