Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry Christmas!

It's here, once again, Christmas time!

As a Catholic, I insist that holidays with Christian origins to be credited to the original Christian brand, Roman Catholics. If you don't like it, I don't care. Easter, Halloween, Valentine's Day, all holidays (Holy Days as we call them in the faith) have all been hijacked to some extent by the secular world and turned into marketing tools. This is wrong, but I'm going to avoid soap-boxing this matter. Those who don't have a faith in Jesus Christ are welcome to celebrate anything they want on December 25. I'm not saying you shouldn't celebrate, I'm saying don't celebrate Christmas (Christ's Mass) if you aren't a believer.

Why you ask? Well, this is an important celebration to Christians. This is when we remember how God decided to reach out to us to make sure we find salvation and an eternity of joy with him. He became one of us, truly man and God, then sacrificed himself for us, dying and rising, showing us what waits if we follow him. So Christmas is about the beauty of service and sacrifice, not cheap TV's. Once again, if you don't follow that belief, that is your choice. I'm not to stand in judgement of anyone. Just know that I pray for all of you that do not believe, that one day your hearts may be turned, and that you will eventually see heaven.

No, just being a good person doesn't guarantee anything. You're making up your own rules and since you didn't create the universe in which you live, you don't get to make the rules for it. Plus, it's a weak argument. "I'm basically good." By whose standards? By yours? So by that thinking, if you lowered your standards to where people who smoke crack and rob liquor stores are basically good, and you smoked crack and robed liquor stores, you'd still be basically good? You're justifying laziness. No one wins on survivor by just laying in their hut and saying, I'm basically good so I deserve to win. You want Heaven? Get out there and work for it.

And work for it is what we should all do each day. Falling short is also what I do each day. I am not perfect. I am a sinner. I fall off the horse quite often, go to confession, and try again. Still I'm not perfect. I am a sinner. But each day I need to try to do better. And that's what I think about at Christmas. God sent his son to find us. We are worthwhile. He loves us and he came looking for us. That means you and me. Since we are worthwhile and worth saving, it's time for all of us to start acting like it. I know I will, but I will fall, and I will need to start again. The failing doesn't matter. Succeeding doesn't matter. Believing is what matters.

So Merry Christmas to you all! Remember that first person shooter games and the latest smart phone are great trinkets to help us enjoy the darker moments of our lives, but they will not get us to Heaven. That you have to earn.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I didn't do anything wrong.

There's a woman I admire. Apparently our recent presidential election doesn't leaver her thinking much of me. Writing makes me feel better, so I'm going to write about it now.

First, about this woman. I admire her, and have since I met her. I learned something from her that has served me well about keeping a great attitude toward accomplishments and facing adversity. Anyone who's ever come to her with a problem or negative situation in their lives, she gives the same advice.

"That's too bad, now what are you going to do about it?"

It's brilliant, really. Here's the scenario in practice. Life handed you shit. I get it, but you don't want to stand there holding shit, do you? Of course not! Drop the shit where you won't step in it, and wash your hands! How wonderful is that advice? It's very wonderful. I just wish she'd listen to it herself.

We did not vote for the same presidential candidate. Her candidate lost, and she is demonstrating the vitriolic isolationism for me that is being heaped on so many people who simply expressed their preference for a candidate by voting. We didn't do anything wrong.

Now, following her advice, I have to figure out what to do to move on. That's not as easy as it may seem, since I'm left feeling like I made a mistake, like I did something on purpose to offend her, when the only purposeful thing I did was vote, and that isn't wrong.

My voting decision was not baseless or flippant. I took my time. I became educated. I made my choice. I never tried to steer anyone toward my candidate. I never ridiculed theirs. I did make points clear about both leading candidates on social media. I am a constitutionalist and that's what's fair. Knowledge is the cornerstone of democracy. Spreading correct information isn't wrong.

To make matters more uncomfortable, I will see this woman again. Many more times, in fact. When I see her I will know that she has disdain for me. She blames me for the loss of an election that seemed all but guaranteed to go to her candidate. She will feel her blood pressure rise, thinking about electoral college votes and such. Sorry, I didn't make the system that both candidates campaigned under. I didn't do anything wrong.

In the end... well, there might not be an end. On election night I made dinner for my family and settled in for watching the election returns, sure that my candidate lost. I had already accepted defeat. Her side doesn't seem to have, and they may never. I've been marginalized, negated by the label of a political party. I just hope that someday her side will realize I didn't do anything wrong. I voted, just like she did. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Hey, Hey! Holy Mackerel!

a picture I took of the old Wrigley Field scoreboard

Hey, hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way!

This was the opening lyric of the song written by Johnny Frigo which we associated with the Cubs when I was a kid. We lived in Elmwood Park, a Chicago Suburb, and geographically, north side territory. There were no White Sox fans in Elmwood Park, at least none that you could see. They had to stay in the closet, not because we would beat them up or anything. Heavens no. We were actually afraid of them.

White Sox fans in my neighborhood stayed secret because of their reputation as south side brutes. In Comiskey Park, their fans cheered more for the fights between spectators in the stands than they did for the play on the field. Need proof of their aggressive nature? How about the time two White Sox fans attacked the Royals first base coach back in 2002, during a game! Both shirtless, the father and his 15 year old son charged the field and beat the 54 year old to the ground with their fists, then beat the security guards that came to assist. As Cubs fans, we were different. We were civil, turn-the-other-cheek, sorts, and we learned to accept losing.

The Cubs are gonna hit today, they're gonna pitch today, they're gonna field today. Come what may, the Cubs are gonna win today!

Winning was always a promise turned bridge too far for the Cubs. Games were daytime affairs until 1988, which meant the people in the stands were mostly those who could afford to take a day off from work, or those who didn't work. It often made for a support group atmosphere in the stands, or so I am told. I know my dad took me to a Cubs game when I was a kid. I remember holding the program and sitting somewhere high up behind the third base line. I guess I was too young to remember much more of being there.  

Hey, hey holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way!

The "Hey, Hey," in the song was a familiar noise. Jack Brickhouse was the legendary Cubs announcer before Harry Caray claimed the mantle, and he used those two words all the time, often getting as excited, if not more excited, than the Cubs Fans. Here's an example of what he said when Ernie Banks notched his 500th home run in 1970, with Pat Jarvis pitching for Atlanta.

"Jarvis fires away ... That's a fly ball, deep to left, back, back ... Hey-Hey! He did it!! Ernie Banks got number 500!!! The ball tossed to the bullpen ... everybody on your feet ... this ... is it!!!! wheeeeeee!!!!!"

Yes, Jack Brickhouse said, "wheee," on television.

They've got the hustle, they've got the muscle, the Chicago Cubs are on their way!!!

We fans knew the Cubs had heart to spare. It was runs they lacked. Everywhere else in professional baseball, the times were a-changing; new stadiums, retractable roofs, and championships. On the north side of Chicago, however, it seemed we were destined to remain in a time capsule. I didn't mind.
Jim and Me before the game
I took my son to his first game when he was eight years old. I'm not sure he appreciated the game of baseball as much as I did, or even if he was aware of his birthright legacy of being born a north side Cubs fan. But one thing was for sure, it was time for the two of them to meet.

May 26, 2006. We sat on the first base line near the visiting bull pen. His mom and I were divorced. She was from Atlanta, so I got tickets to a Braves Game, sure that the Cubs would beat them as a small avenging token for my failed marriage. They must not have gotten my memo, as me, Jim, and 40,863 others in attendance watched the Braves beat the Cubs, 6 to 5. In retrospect, the loss was fitting. Learn how to be a good loser and you become a better person. Often we call those better people, Cubs fans. 

Father of the Year takes son to see Cubs get beat!
... is an award you will never find handed out.

Father shares day of baseball with son!
... is an award that should be given out more often.

Yes, my son saw the Cubs lose to the Braves. He also got to pee in the old men's room troughs and was surprised to see women standing in line to use our toilets because Wrigley Field was designed in a time when mostly men attended games and there were not enough places for women to find relief. We sat in the sun and ate hot dogs and listened to the chatter, long before there were giant video displays in the park or the end of a 108 year championship drought. It's an afternoon I wish I could live again.

I was never one of those obsessive fans, memorizing stats and such, but I did teach Jim to appreciate the beauty of the game, and how it is a metaphor for life. There is an unpredictability to the sport, married to the strength of teamwork. It is a beautiful game that allows us to see it as a friend. We don't need to spend every minute together to be welcomed back time and time again and embraced with it's emotions. In 1988 I was in college and on the "L" when we stopped at Addison, right next to Wrigley Field. There was a noise overhead and I strained to look out the window to see what it was. As it turned out, it was the future in the form of a helicopter lowering the lights that were finally being installed at Wrigley. 

As the story goes, Wrigley was supposed to get lights for night games long before. Their installation was delayed because of the second world war. I wonder why they didn't install them after the war was over. Perhaps with the world having changed as much as it did because of the war, we needed to have a benchmark of the innocence, a reminder of what it was like before nuclear weapons and fascist dictators committing religious genocide became a part of our scrapbook. And there I was, on that train, staring at the stadium, a student, young and optimistic, curious as to how night games at Wrigley would change the Cubs, being the last major league team to play only day games at the time.

It took some time, but I guess it all worked out in the end, except for this whole, get used to winning, thing. Still feels strange.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Let's talk about the election...

I do not like Donald Trump.

I do not like Hilary Clinton.

I do not like the people they associate with.

I do not like the lengths to which they will stoop to serve their own selfish needs.

I do not like the level of disrespect our culture tolerates.

I do not like that Al Gore invented the internet which breeds malice so prolifically.

I do not like that what I know to be true about vulgar locker room talk is suddenly disavowed as having never existed in the first place.

I do not like politicians pandering to corporations for the money necessary to buy elections.

And most of all...

I do not like attacks on anyone's religious beliefs by anyone.

I am Catholic.

I am also of Prussian heritage which means I often find myself being a passionate and angry Catholic.

I do not understand how anyone can commit acts of violence in the name of any religion.

(ISIS, I'm looking at you.)

In the past I have spoken to friends and family in unkind ways about those who practice the Muslim faith.

In my re-examination of personal beliefs, I must now apologize for that.

It was wrong of me to act so impulsively as to blame violence on religious belief.

The problem is not with religion, it is with those who use it as a justification for hate.

It's not just an ISIS problem.

This is a picture taken in Austria in 1955, after my Mom and Dad got married.

The priest seated next to my Mother is Father Richard.

It is remarkable that he is in this photograph.

As a Catholic Priest that opposed the Nazis, he was placed in Dachau and his name written on a death list. 

He was just one of many Catholics persecuted by the Third Reich.

As history teaches us, religious persecution is a fire that grows swiftly from a single spark.

This is why I am concerned.

In 2008 Barack Obama described a beleaguered electorate facing little prospect of jobs or wealth by saying this.

"They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

The POTUS himself equated violence with religion.

Hillary Clinton's campaign staff joined that discussion, and in recently leaked emails are seen persecuting Catholicism and it's detriment to their political goals. 

The other side springboards off of religion too.

Donald Trump's campaign is well known for turning it's sights on those who practice the Muslim faith.

It is a situation I find deplorable.

My faith carries me through when life's circumstances seem unbearable.

Why attack my faith?

Why attack any faith?

Please just stop.

Until you do, I'll be over here, praying.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The query needs what?

Oh, the painful process of writing the query, tempting to actually become a writer with an agent.

This is the "sweet sorrow" for every writer, except for the self righteous bastards that talk about how they never published a thing before and how they were just working on their first novel when they met an agent through a friend during spin class, and once he saw the thirty pages that were written so far, he sold the yet unfinished novel. Oh yea, I met that writer at a bookstore event. She was very proud that she took the express lane to having her novel published. I'll go back to that bookstore every week just to see how soon it hits the discounted shelf.

For the rest of us, however, we must write, and we must query. Basics: Query - attempt to sell your craft to the middlemen who convince publishers to buy manuscripts and turn them into thin tree slices stained with ink that people buy. We writers send queries to agents, managers, and even those few publishers that still accept them, hoping our sample pages and writing style are interesting enough to make us their clients. Query requirements differ based on the person you're submitting to. Some even request things like character biographies and what works are most similar to yours. Sure, I wrote the thing, now let me tell you how to market it too!

The most challenging part of a query I was ever asked for was a synopsis. I just wrote 70,000 words. That's my synopsis, isn't it? Turns out, no. The agent I'm asking to be my best friend doesn't have time for reading 70,000 words, at least not just yet. Film maker John Singleton once said, "Nobody cares about your little movie. You have to care about your little move." It's true in film, and it's true in writing. The agent, the publisher, even the public doesn't care about your little whatever you've created. You have to care about it. And because you do, you will introduce it to people in the best way possible, by quickly and concisely telling them all about it, in just six sentences.

Stop panting. It's possible. No, you don't have to re-read your novel and pull six sentences out. What you need to do is answer six questions.

This is a photo of a page from my writing journal. I use that journal to write about writing. I put in all sorts of advice I receive about plot, structure, and methods. This particular page includes the secret to writing a six sentence synopsis.


Here are your questions.

1) What is life like for my main character(s) at the start of the book?

2) What sets them on their journey?

3) Why is the journey important to them?

4) What obstacles get in the way?

5) What is the biggest obstacle of all? (can be hinted at)

6) End with a Question or a hook.

Okay, the last one isn't a question, but if you really wrote a good story, that should be easy to come up with.

Right now I'm working on a science fiction novel. It's kind of like something Arthur C. Clarke would have written, mankind finds it's destiny in space. Let's see if I can write a synopsis using the format I outlined above.

1) Joseph Angsten is dying of a disease which is slowly robing his body of the use of it's muscles.

2) Both Joseph and his mother share a belief that mankind is soon to make a leap in it's development, but to do so requires leaving Earth and Mars behind.

3) His only desire is to die while in outer space, a dream made real by his mother who helps him stow away on a mining ship bound for Jupiter.

4) Stowaways, and those that help them, are punished by execution.

5) Joseph's continuing bodily atrophy prevents him from adequately expressing his preternatural knowledge that mankind is dying and that the ship must never return to Earth.

6) How will the nearly paralyzed Joseph convince the ship's Captain to keep the ship where it is - with his very life, if he must.

There! I did it. One problem, I don't like it. Story is tension, and I've failed to depict any tension. Let me try it from a different angle.

1) Captain Hobart is the last surviving person aboard the Interplanetary Mining Vessel, Sunshine Laersk, as it sits marooned on the Saturnine moon Gannymeade.

2) Having not received communications from Earth and Mars for years, and confident that human life on those planets no longer exists, she sets about to journal not only the ship's fate but the condition of mankind at it's end, should some future and unknown explorers encounter her ship.

3) Were it not for her encounter with a crippled, ten year old stowaway on her ship who told her fantastic visions of what was about to happen, Captain Hobart's circumstance would be far different.

4) She wonders if she made a mistake in not shooting him in the head when they first found him, as is the standard punishment for stowaways.

5) As she sits trapped in the useless prison of her ship, she now wonders if her biggest mistake was not listening to him sooner.

6) Who is it that will find her written words, and what will they choose to do with them?

I like it better. I shifted viewpoint and it gets me excited for the story. Now let me clean it up for the queries.

Banished Children of Eve is a story told by Captain Hobart, the last surviving person aboard the Interplanetary Mining Vessel, Sunshine Laersk, as it sits marooned on the Saturnine moon Gannymeade. Having not received communications from Earth and Mars for years, and confident that human life on those planets no longer exists, she sets about to journal not only the ship's fate but the condition of mankind at it's end, should some future and unknown explorers encounter her ship. Through her writings she realizes that were it not for a crippled, ten year old stowaway, who told her fantastic visions of what was about to happen to bring an end to mankind, Captain Hobart's circumstances would be far different. Mostly she wonders if she made a mistake by not shooting the boy in the head when they first found him, as was the standard punishment for stowaways. Sitting trapped in the prison of her useless space craft, she later considers if her biggest mistake was not listening to him sooner. What is it that will find her written words, what will they choose to do with them, and will mankind live on?

I like it. Time for queries.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

An excerpt...

When I first stared this blog, my intention was to journal the process of becoming a published author, which I thought would take two more years, tops. After all, I had been steadily working at that goal for a couple years prior to my first post, so how much longer could it really take? Turns out, it takes longer than I thought, and as I write this, I realizing I've been writing for longer than I thought. 
My first free writing was a parody piece I did in fifth grade, at St. Vincent Ferrer in River Forest, Illinois. I say it was my first because it was the first time I remember when I wrote because it felt good, not because a teacher told me to. If that's my starting point, then I've been writing for 39 years. But wait, there was a lot of time in the middle when I didn't write at all and just filled my head with television reruns from three in the afternoon until dinner, then prime time television until bedtime. So lets take off the years of 6th grade through senior year of high school, which gives us 32 years. I didn't do any freewriting in college until I started working at the radio station, so knock off three more, 29 years. Then came post graduate, marriage, job, and no writing. Minus 10 years from Griffindor! 19 years total. That brings us to 1999, when my first wife r-u-n-n-o-f-t. It made me depressed and crazy all at the same time. My release was journaling the crazies in the memo application on my palm pilot. On and off I wrote until 2009, lets say two-thirds of the time. 15 years total. 
And so it was, in 2009, I showed my fiance my manuscript, 10 years of journaling. She said, keep writing, so that's what I did. Every day after that I either spent learning about the different types of writing, reading, reading about writing, writing, editing, querying, conferencing, critiquing, you know, that whole chestnut. And where has it gotten me? Well, I'm much better at it, that's for sure, and I've read a lot of great books along the way, and met some fantastic people. I've also acquired a love for literary agents that actually send rejections instead of remaining silent. You guys are the best. I've also been published in magazines and have a screenplay in the works which holds great promise. 15 years of writing, and what do I have to show for it? I'll give you an example. Below is an excerpt from a middle grade science fiction novel I'm writing. I'm relying on my admiration for Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov for my story telling style. There might be a little Bradbury in there as well, with hints of Jack London and Jules Verne.
Have a look and decide for yourself if it feels like 15 years of work...

Our time around the ringed planet was planned to last approximately four years e.s.t. but thanks to Joseph, we were ahead of schedule. Accustomed as I was to prolonged space travel and how it distorts the passing of time, I followed my own advice which I had shared with my crew, and that was to solidly stare at a calendar that represented the real time on Earth. This should be done every morning before beginning the duties at hand. Look at the day and date. Say it over and over in your head until it becomes a real thing. Then as you complete a task, make it a habit to announce in your head that it is such and such date and I have completed such and such task. In that way I have found you become much more accustomed to the passage of time and recognize your mission will not last forever. It is mentally helpful to keep a linear progression of events committed to memory, to embrace that time still passes even when you are far away from it's ever present reminders. My advice was sound but if I could, I would offer one more bit of advice to achieve the same outcome, and that would be to have a crew member on board who is suffering from a terminal disease whose primary symptom is a very present and observable muscle atrophy. Growing up in the corn belt of Iowa gave us a seasonal indicator of the passing of time in the numerous farm fields and crops planted thereon. None was more pronounced than a field of corn. Springtime brought shoots of green struggling to sprout from the cobbles of black soil in which it's seed was planted. As the days grew longer and hotter, the shoots grew to be tall seedlings of nearly the same height in neatly organized rows combed out across the land into the distance. Before you could get used to that sight, it appeared they stretched to a height that no longer allowed you to see more than a few feet into the tangle of growth. Gaining girth, they produced their offspring which hung close to the stalk from which they drew life. The daylight dims and the temperature changes. The corn reveals at first that it is old and will soon die. It's color is no longer a lush green but has transited to dusky browns. The offspring are more pronounced now, distancing themselves from the structure which held them off of the ground. Then unexpectedly the day comes when all of the corn is removed in the violent threshing where rumbling machines massive in height to the individual stalk tear them all down en-mass and rip the offspring from the parent, scattering the waste behind it to make a more fertile bed for new seeds to come. The shock to the senses is measurable. The wall of mature life which grew over a long periods of days has disappeared. Joseph was our field of corn.

Friday, May 27, 2016

a lonely chapel on the hillside

I recently attended my Nephew's wedding, which was held in a quaint chapel built in 1863 next to a cemetery overlooking a low, wetland marsh. The architecture seemed to define the term modest, in stark contrast to the nearby Taliesin, one time home of Frank Lloyd Wright. Only 40 or so guests were present, and for May, the Wisconsin weather was warmer and more humid than expected. In keeping with the austerity of the chapel, and the lack of cellular telephone service, electric lights, air conditioning, and running water, the music was provided on violins by the bride's sister and another musician. To help set the mood, clicking on the following sentence will open a web page with a YouTube video featuring the song. CLICK HERE for that video. Go start the video and come back to this tab. It will make the read much more entertaining. If there's a Geico commercial, let it play out, then come back here.

Are you back? Great! On with my story.

The music and the setting was perfect imagination fodder for me and my son, Jim, who in the fall will begin studying film making at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Soon, we whispered in each others ears as the ceremony continued.
Varga Wedding, May 25, 2016

"Hey dad, know what this music sounds like?"

"No Jim, what?"

"It's a Ken Burns Documentary soundtrack for a film about a steamer on the great lakes that capsized and bodies are just being recovered from the shore."

"Really? I think it sounds like the fretful hours passing while waiting for news about a mine-shaft collapse in the mountains of West Virginia."

"Come on, dad... Using blankets and whatever poles could be found to create makeshift gurneys, bodies were slowly carried through the narrow streets and deposited in modest parlors and drawing rooms to which they belonged."

"No, I think it goes like... Preachers oversaw the outpouring of humanity as Mothers and Fathers waited by the mine shaft entrance in the rain, standing by children who clung to their mothers, fearful they would be counted as widows by the end of the day."

Jim envisioned a letter from the time. 

"At first, the items we found on the sand made it look like a millinery had washed out into the lake. All sorts of clothing rolled in the gentle waves that churned the sand of the shore but it was the hats that floated best. Then I saw it, a sight that makes my heart beat run shallow, even as I think of it now. A hand, lily white and swollen, fingers moving with the current, as if beckoning me to retrieve its body from the water." - Andrew Connor, 1882

I told him what the actual letter was. 

"I would have thought a body no longer burdened with a soul would have become somehow lighter, easier to carry than one that still possessed God's divine gift. Such was not the case as one by one we accompanied our fallen comrades in the narrow space of the ore elevator. There was not much room and to keep the body from falling through the shaft timbers, I had to hold him in a strong embrace. I wondered if this is what angels feel like when they bring someone forth to heaven, or if I was experiencing the devil's pleasure of collecting another disbeliever's body." - Horace Zimmerman, 1874

Say what you will about the benefits of the world in which we live today, filled with comfort and convenience, but remember always, our imaginations are much better served by the worlds that humanity left behind.

More information about the chapel can be found at