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.