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 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.